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

Calvinism’s Closet Heresy? Torrance on Limited Atonement

Augustine on Open Theism

Ever heard of open theism? If you haven’t, open theism is an umbrella term for a variety of doctrines of God which hold this in common: God does not have total foreknowledge of all future events. For most of my readers, I’m sure this an unfamiliar and very bizarre sounding position, but unfortunately open theism does have growing supports in groups which otherwise appear to be Evangelical. Major supporters include Clark Pinnock, Gregory Boyd, and John Sanders.

Here, I have no interest in providing my own arguments against open theism. There are plenty of those to go around already. Nor will I spend time explaining why open theism’s error is actually less Biblically obvious than many people assume. That can also be saved for later.

What I actually am interested in doing here is quoting Saint Augustine on this matter. I’ve recently begun reading (well, listening to) The City of God, and in the course of this work Augustine comes to refute the error of Cicero, a pagan philosopher who denied God’s foreknowledge to preserve human free will. Since this is almost exactly the project of modern open theists, I thought it would be worth sharing Augustine’s response. So without further ado, here’s the argument:

And this [refuting the Stoic concepts of prophecy, fate, and divination] he attempts to accomplish by denying that there is any knowledge of future things, and maintains with all his might that there is no such knowledge either in God or man, and that there is no prediction of events. Thus he both denies the foreknowledge of God, and attempts by vain arguments, and by opposing to himself certain oracles very easy to be refuted, to overthrow all prophecy, even such as is clearer than the light (though even these oracles are not refuted by him).

I should break for a moment to mention that, unlike Cicero, open theists do not rule out all prophecy. Some believe God can predict events with great precision like intelligent people but better, and others simply argue that, when God wishes, He can ensure that His will for the future is carried out, though at the expense of human accountability.

But, in refuting these conjectures of the mathematicians, his argument is triumphant, because truly these are such as destroy and refute themselves. Nevertheless, they are far more tolerable who assert the fatal influence of the stars than they who deny the foreknowledge of future events. For, to confess that God exists, and at the same time to deny that He has foreknowledge of future things, is the most manifest folly. This Cicero himself saw, and therefore to assert the doctrine embodied in the words of Scripture, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” That, however, he did not do in his own person, for he saw how odious and offensive such an opinion would be; and therefore, in his book on the nature of the gods, he makes Cotta dispute concerning this against the Stoics, and preferred to give his own opinion in favor of Lucilius Balbus, to whom he assigned the defence of the Stoical position, rather than in favor of Cotta, who maintained that no divinity exists. However, in his book on divination, he in his own person most openly opposes the doctrine of the prescience of future things. But all this he seems to do in order that he may not grant the doctrine of fate, and by so doing destroy free will. For he thinks that, the knowledge of future things being once conceded, fate follows as so necessary a consequence that it cannot be denied.

But, let these perplexing debatings and disputations of the philosophers go on as they may, we, in order that we may confess the most high and true God Himself, do confess His will, supreme power, and prescience. Neither let us be afraid lest, after all, we do not do by will that which we do by will, because He, whose foreknowledge is infallible, foreknew that we would do it. It was this which Cicero was afraid of, and therefore opposed foreknowledge. The Stoics also maintained that all things do not come to pass by necessity, although they contended that all things happen according to destiny. What is it, then, that Cicero feared in the prescience of future things? Doubtless it was this,—that if all future things have been foreknown, they will happen in the order in which they have been foreknown; and if they come to pass in this order, there is a certain order of things foreknown by God; and if a certain order of things, then a certain order of causes, for nothing can happen which is not preceded by some efficient cause. But if there is a certain order of causes according to which everything happens which does happen, then by fate, says he, all things happen which do happen. But if this be so, then is there nothing in our own power, and there is no such thing as freedom of will; and if we grant that, says he, the whole economy of human life is subverted. In vain are laws enacted. In vain are reproaches, praises, chidings, exhortations had recourse to; and there is no justice whatever in the appointment of rewards for the good, and punishments for the wicked. And that consequences so disgraceful, and absurd, and pernicious to humanity may not follow, Cicero chooses to reject the foreknowledge of future things, and shuts up the religious mind to this alternative, to make choice between two things, either that something is in our own power, or that there is foreknowledge,—both of which cannot be true; but if the one is affirmed, the other is thereby denied. He therefore, like a truly great and wise man, and one who consulted very much and very skillfully for the good of humanity, of those two chose the freedom of the will, to confirm which he denied the foreknowledge of future things; and thus, wishing to make men free he makes them sacrilegious.

But the religious mind chooses both, confesses both, and maintains both by the faith of piety. But how so? says Cicero; for the knowledge of future things being granted, there follows a chain of consequences which ends in this, that there can be nothing depending on our own free wills. And further, if there is anything depending on our wills, we must go backwards by the same steps of reasoning till we arrive at the conclusion that there is no foreknowledge of future things. For we go backwards through all the steps in the following order:—If there is free will, all things do not happen according to fate; if all things do not happen according to fate, there is not a certain order of causes; and if there is not a certain order of causes, neither is there a certain order of things foreknown by God,—for things cannot come to pass except they are preceded by efficient causes,—but, if there is no fixed and certain order of causes foreknown by God, all things cannot be said to happen according as He foreknew that they would happen. And further, if it is not true that all things happen just as they have been foreknown by Him, there is not, says he, in God any foreknowledge of future events.

I’ll point out here that Cicero’s argument, as presented by Augustine, is almost identical to that of open theists on a popular level, but also of many atheists. And must of its core actually parallels the standard arguments in favor of free will over a Calvinist-style determinism.

Now, against the sacrilegious and impious darings of reason, we assert both that God knows all things before they come to pass, and that we do by our free will whatsoever we know and feel to be done by us only because we will it. But that all things come to pass by fate, we do not say; nay we affirm that nothing comes to pass by fate; for we demonstrate that the name of fate, as it is wont to be used by those who speak of fate, meaning thereby the position of the stars at the time of each one’s conception or birth, is an unmeaning word, for astrology itself is a delusion. But an order of causes in which the highest efficiency is attributed to the will of God, we neither deny nor do we designate it by the name of fate, unless, perhaps, we may understand fate to mean that which is spoken, deriving it from fari, to speak; for we cannot deny that it is written in the sacred Scriptures, “God hath spoken once; these two things have I heard, that power belongeth unto God. Also unto Thee, O God, belongeth mercy: for Thou wilt render unto every man according to his works.” Now the expression, “Once hath He spoken,” is to be understood as meaning “immovably,” that is, unchangeably hath He spoken, inasmuch as He knows unchangeably all things which shall be, and all things which He will do. We might, then, use the word fate in the sense it bears when derived from fari, to speak, had it not already come to be understood in another sense, into which I am unwilling that the hearts of men should unconsciously slide. But it does not follow that, though there is for God a certain order of all causes, there must therefore be nothing depending on the free exercise of our own wills, for our wills themselves are included in that order of causes which is certain to God, and is embraced by His foreknowledge, for human wills are also causes of human actions; and He who foreknew all the causes of things would certainly among those causes not have been ignorant of our wills. For even that very concession which Cicero himself makes is enough to refute him in this argument. For what does it help him to say that nothing takes place without a cause, but that every cause is not fatal, there being a fortuitous cause, a natural cause, and a voluntary cause? It is sufficient that he confesses that whatever happens must be preceded by a cause.

So how does Augustine respond? He simply includes the freedom of the will as part of a causal chain to be foreknown by God. This doesn’t collapse all human choice into “fatal” determinism, but simply means that God can by His omniscience see through the entire course of human intentions and decisions as part of the cause-and-effect relationship which Cicero has already acknowledged exists even in a world with free will. Continuing:

For we say that those causes which are called fortuitous are not a mere name for the absence of causes, but are only latent, and we attribute them either to the will of the true God, or to that of spirits of some kind or other. And as to natural causes, we by no means separate them from the will of Him who is the author and framer of all nature. But now as to voluntary causes. They are referable either to God, or to angels, or to men, or to animals of whatever description, if indeed those instinctive movements of animals devoid of reason, by which, in accordance with their own nature, they seek or shun various things, are to be called wills. And when I speak of the wills of angels, I mean either the wills of good angels, whom we call the angels of God, or of the wicked angels, whom we call the angels of the devil, or demons. Also by the wills of men I mean the wills either of the good or of the wicked. And from this we conclude that there are no efficient causes of all things which come to pass unless voluntary causes, that is, such as belong to that nature which is the spirit of life. For the air or wind is called spirit, but, inasmuch as it is a body, it is not the spirit of life. The spirit of life, therefore, which quickens all things, and is the creator of every body, and of every created spirit, is God Himself, the uncreated spirit. In His supreme will resides the power which acts on the wills of all created spirits, helping the good, judging the evil, controlling all, granting power to some, not granting it to others. For, as He is the creator of all natures, so also is He the bestower of all powers, not of all wills; for wicked wills are not from Him, being contrary to nature, which is from Him. As to bodies, they are more subject to wills: some to our wills, by which I mean the wills of all living mortal creatures, but more to the wills of men than of beasts. But all of them are most of all subject to the will of God, to whom all wills also are subject, since they have no power except what He has bestowed upon them. The cause of things, therefore, which makes but is not made, is God; but all other causes both make and are made. Such are all created spirits, and especially the rational. Material causes, therefore, which may rather be said to be made than to make, are not to be reckoned among efficient causes, because they can only do what the wills of spirits do by them. How, then, does an order of causes which is certain to the foreknowledge of God necessitate that there should be nothing which is dependent on our wills, when our wills themselves have a very important place in the order of causes? Cicero, then, contends with those who call this order of causes fatal, or rather designate this order itself by the name of fate; to which we have an abhorrence, especially on account of the word, which men have become accustomed to understand as meaning what is not true. But, whereas he denies that the order of all causes is most certain, and perfectly clear to the prescience of God, we detest his opinion more than the Stoics do. For he either denies that God exists,—which, indeed, in an assumed personage, he has labored to do, in his book De Natura Deorum,—or if he confesses that He exists, but denies that He is prescient of future things, what is that but just “the fool saying in his heart there is no God?” For one who is not prescient of all future things is not God. Wherefore our wills also have just so much power as God willed and foreknew that they should have; and therefore whatever power they have, they have it within most certain limits; and whatever they are to do, they are most assuredly to do, for He whose foreknowledge is infallible foreknew that they would have the power to do it, and would do it. Wherefore, if I should choose to apply the name of fate to anything at all, I should rather say that fate belongs to the weaker of two parties, will to the stronger, who has the other in his power, than that the freedom of our will is excluded by that order of causes, which, by an unusual application of the word peculiar to themselves, the Stoics call Fate.

You’ll notice here that Augustine affirms God as the original Cause, Creator, and Sustainer of all things, even the human will, and even the wicked human will. Yet His creative power which gives the will existence and ability does not determine the characteristic shape or choices that will takes on. Instead, he explicitly states that “wicked wills are not from Him.”

In the following chapter, Augustine also goes on to ask whether necessity affects the freedom of the will. There he makes some interesting points about God’s freedom, but to finish up this post I want to quote one more short bit very relevant to this post.

It is not the case, therefore, that because God foreknew what would be in the power of our wills, there is for that reason nothing in the power of our wills. For he who foreknew this did not foreknow nothing. Moreover, if He who foreknew what would be in the power of our wills did not foreknow nothing, but something, assuredly, even though He did foreknow, there is something in the power of our wills. Therefore we are by no means compelled, either, retaining the prescience of God, to take away the freedom of the will, or, retaining the freedom of the will, to deny that He is prescient of future things, which is impious. But we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former, that we may believe well; the latter, that we may live well. For he lives ill who does not believe well concerning God. Wherefore, be it far from us, in order to maintain our freedom, to deny the prescience of Him by whose help we are or shall be free.

St. Augustine, The City of God, chapters 9-10

Augustine on Open Theism

The Benefits (and Dangers) of Reading Heretics

I never want to be a heretic. Of course, if you ask some Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, and people from other groups, I already am one. Still, I profess Christ crucified, and I agree with the great ecumenical creeds of Christian history, so I dare to think that I am safe. Plus, I’m Baptist, and all Baptists go to Heaven (that’s in the Bible, right?).

Anyway, off of my babbling. Despite that I never want to be a heretic, nor do I particularly appreciate their presence in Christianity, I do find their existence useful. This is just another way that God works all things to the good of His people, even when false teachers arise to lead them astray. So, without further ado, I’ll briefly list the benefits of reading the writings of heretics:

Benefits of Reading Heretics

  • You gain a better understanding of where not to go. When you become familiar with the general patterns and philosophies of a heretic, you find yourself with better discernment on all sorts of doctrinal issues. If you know what heretics sound like, then you will more easily be able to spot one and refrain from taking him with the same trust you would someone else. Key words and phrases will stand out as danger signs. You will also be able to recognize better if you yourself begin slipping down a slope that could lead to heresy (and at some point or another, most people will).
  • You can learn why you believe what you do. When you read from someone who assures you that original sin or the Trinity is a false doctrine, then you will find the opportunity to research the issue and come out with a better understanding of why you should believe these truths. Investigating assaults on the truth often leads to knowing the truth more confidently.
  • You can refine and expand your understanding of your own beliefs. I have a really heretical friend who contradicts almost everything I believe except the Trinity and the state of the human will. Nevertheless, I find conversing with him very eye-opening to me because when he explains his radically different perspective of some issue, he actually sheds light on the weaknesses or blind spots in my own understanding while still leaving me convinced of what I believe. The end result is that my views gain depth and perspective, while I remain entirely orthodox.
  • You will gain the ability of helpful dialogue that can bring heretics back to the truth. If you read heretics and understand their thought processes, you can talk to them in such a way that they respect you and you don’t feel the need to verbally burn them at the stake. This opens doors to leading them back to the truth, which of course is a wonderful and excellent event.

 

All that said, you’re going to go read Love Wins now, right? Actually, if you’re going to read from a heretic, read someone better than Rob Bell. Choices of heretic aside, I should also point out the dangers of reading heretics, so as to keep you from making dire mistakes.

Dangers of Reading Heretics

  • You can loose your theological footing. If you spend too much time listening to heretics, you may drown out the voices of Scriptural truth and orthodoxy. This can put you on a slippery slope to becoming one of those heretics that someone else reads one day. So whenever you read heresy, make sure you counter the effects with Scripture reading and strong Biblical teaching from trusted leaders.
  • You can become a minimalist. A minimalist is someone who is unconcerned with all doctrine except, basically, “Jesus is Lord.” These people want every group of Christianity to get along equally without confrontation, and are likely to put doctrine down as divisive in favor of loving everyone. This can be a result of reading heretics if you grow to sympathize with them enough, or find their arguments equally valid to those for true doctrine. So remember to maintain a fight for what is right, and ground yourself with good reasons to believe what you do.
  • You can get distracted. If you spend too much time reading heretics, you’ll run out of time to read Scripture, and Scripture is the source of our strength and the final authority in our Christian walk. So, just like with any reading material, set your copy of The Shack to the side every once in a while to read God-breathed truth instead.
The Benefits (and Dangers) of Reading Heretics