Wednesday, August 19, 2009

For Whom Did Christ Die: Three Views

Michael Bird has a series of interviews on his blog that attempt to answer the question, for whom did Christ die. The three views represented in this series are: Arminianism (Ben Witherington), Amyraldianism (Michael Jensen) and Calvinism (Paul Helm). These short concise answers are helpful to give an introduction to the three main way Christians have atepted to answer this question. As most of our readers will know, the bloggers here at Bring the Books believe that the Calvinist view of the atonement best articulates the teaching of the Bible, as a whole. I would commend these posts for your reading.


  1. Non-Calvinists often phrase the question that way. A better question to ask is, "What did Christ accomplish in his death?"

    The Arminian and Amyraldian position inescapably is "nothing." The Calvinist position is, "the salvation of his people."

  2. Kevin, that's only true if you take one, narrow view of the atonement (penal substitionary for the elect alone), which is certainly true in itself (but still says nothing about its universal sufficiency), and absolutize it at the expense of a more robust doctrine (which includes views such as Christus victor; modified ransom; covenant faithfulness).

    Let us not be guilty of lumping "Amyraldians" in with Arminians on this point. Before the second half of the 17th century, the former were simply considered Calvinists by the majority of Reformed folk. Amyraldians without doubt answer that Christ's death accomplished many, many things—including the efficaceous covering of God's chosen.

  3. I agree with you, Chris. The fact is, Amyraldians should probably still be considered Calvinists. Technically I don't think they conceded any of the five points of Calvinism; rather they added a clarifying point. As far as I can tell, Amyraut believed in a definite atonement of the elect, but he also believed that God wills salvation in more than one way.

  4. Chris,

    Should we today consider Arius a Christian?

  5. Hi, Josh.

    I think I know why you're asking such a question. But how could I answer it, really? With respect to the Arius of history, I have no idea, any more than I know without doubt that my bestest friends are Christian. I say this because the way Arius comes down to us in pop culture is often not the most accurate picture (he was not a leader of a rebellious monolithic movement known as Arianism). He was no demagogue, apparently, and was actually 'conservative' in light of the magnanimous changes taking shape ecclesiastically in the fourth century.

    Even if your question is more theoretical, i.e., can one hold the substance (no pun intended) of what Arius taught and remain Christian post Nicea, then I'd still have to say it depends on the heart of the matter. Sometimes the doctrine itself betrays the heart. We'd have to take it case by case. The harder work in answering your question is getting at what motivated Arius to formulate his theology in the direction he did (that's why doing theology or theological analysis, incidentally, can never be divorced from historiography). I think that makes all the difference.

    But the short answer to your question is no. Our biblical-theological arguments for the 'Trinity' are even 'higher' than what the Nicean creed offers (with its almost total reliance on Greek philosophical categories to explain the divine, which was of course warranted, given that the battle was drawn on those lines and in that particular culture), and thus lend even less credence to Arius' views.

  6. Chris,

    I thoroughly enjoy discussing theological matters with you. The manner in which yo engage in discussion is highly commendable. Thanks for that.

    By asking my question I am trying to figure out how we judge people now on standards they did not have and if a new standard comes along after a view was allowable, can that view now be unallowable. For example, it is pretty clear that the extent of the atonement question had different answers within the reformed movement in the past (i.e. before the Westminster Standards), however, now the Reformed community as a whole has one specific view and does not want to make other views acceptable. Does this mean, because others in the past allowed a certain view, that we must allow for that view today?

  7. Josh, thanks for your kind words.

    I do generally have a problem with the concept of '(infallible) theological development' that is often taken for granted among us. It strikes me as odd too that it is of little difference whether one is Catholic or Protestant when such a concept is assumed (I mean, I fully expect Catholics to adhere tenaciously to this idea, since the very institution itself is set up to speak infallibly at certain times and on certain points).

    All this to say that, with respect to your question above, generally speaking, yes, we should allow for that old, acceptable view today. Certainly, where the church has spoken 'universally' on a given subject, then those who willfully choose to think/act otherwise do so at their peril (note again the situation with Arius). But since I'm not completely sold on this concept of theological development/progression, then deeming another's views that were previously acceptable and orthodox to be now unorthodox because of a narrowing of the tradition seems to me tenuous at best. And, besides, Westminster produced a confession, not an ecumenical council.

    At any rate, with respect to hypothetical universalism and Westminster, the insinuation doesn't hold up under scrutiny. At the assembly a few theologians raised contentions regarding the scope of Christ’s atonement (and by extension, God’s will). Numerous instances are recorded where various divines argued that Christ’s death paid a price for all⎯absolutely for the elect and contingently just in case the reprobate believed. Had they been explicitly Arminian or Socinian in their arguments, the Abbey would have witnessed its first tar-and-feathering session—but such was not the case. To my mind, Josh, this shows how the debates over this particular issue were not as polarized as some critics imagine.

    For further reading:

    A. F. Mitchell, John Struthers, eds. Minutes of the Session of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edinburgh: Wm. Blackwood & Sons, 1974), lvff, xxff, 152ff.

    William B. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edmonton, AB: Still Waters Revival Books, 1991), 112-113.

    Craig Troxel's “Amyraut 'at' the Assembly: The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Extent of the Atonement.” Presbyterion 22, no. 1 (1996): 43-55.

  8. Chris,

    I think this is one of the fundamental difference between those who are so called "TRs" and the others, some time called "moderates" (I really am not sure what to call each side).

    I am inclined to think that modern day reformed bodies, such as the OPC and the PCA, can and do have the right to define what is and is not reformed. This is not the same thing as what is and is not Christian or what is or is not orthodox. Thus, as the PCA has done, the issue of the imputation of Christ's active and passive obedience has become what it is, for them, to be reformed. I think as an ecclesiastical body they can do this. What are your thoughts?

  9. Josh,

    When you narrow the scope of what it means to be Reformed, it's not simply a matter of limiting what can and cannot be believed. You also cut yourself off from the way the Reformers viewed one another. In other words, if those with different views of the atonement were once included but now excluded, then this shift is not a Reformed way of doing buisness. I believe this causes more problems than it helps and stifles dialogue. It's a lot easier to say that someone is not Reformed than to deal with a view they hold.

    In one of your recent posts you talk about "Counting Heads" and you comment that counting heads is a bad way to do theology emphasizing Athanasius going Contra Mundum. Yet here you seem to say that counting heads is the way to go. If enough people say that some doctrine is or is not Reformed, then it must be so.

    What is the criteria for employing either of these two methods?


  10. Faris,

    You seem to be saying that by holding a view as not Reformed means that I will not consider it or dialogue on that issue. If anyone should know this is not how I operate, it should be you. I discuss many views and consider many views that are not considered Reformed.

    Further, I am not "counting heads" here; rather, I am going with the things done by my ecclesiastical authority--the PCA. In addition to that, I am allowing for the development of Reformed theology and allowing it be grow and refine, semper reformanda. Just like what it means to be a Christian grows and gets refined, so to does Reformed Theology. It is not a stagnant theology.

    You said, "You also cut yourself off from the way the Reformers viewed one another." This seems to me to presuppose the very view you are arguing for. Namely, the way they did it back then is who we should do it now. This is the very thing that is being discussed. I appreciate the way the Reformers did things, but they were in a completely different context, especially, a different political climate. They needed unity with other Reformers for different reasons then we need it. They needed to unite for simple survival against the Roman Catholic Church. With you consider the memorial view on the Sacraments to be Reformed? Would you vote to ordain a man in your denomination if he held this view?

    You said, "I believe this causes more problems than it helps and stifles dialogue." Could you give these said "problems?"

    You said, "It's a lot easier to say that someone is not Reformed than to deal with a view they hold." I agree completely with you on this. This is what I see, for example, Wright doing with the Reformed view on justification. I am in full agreement with you. But, best to my knowledge, I have not done this. I am willing to "deal" with any views that are not my own. If you see me being dismissive of another view, please let me know and I will try to interact with it head on.

    Enough theologizing for now. I hope all is well with you and your wife. I am praying for your internship and your work. Great to hear from you bother. Talk to you soon.

  11. Josh, are you implying that I just proffered a theological argument for confessional moderation?

    The problem is, as I see it, neither the OPC nor the PCA own the title "Reformed." Sure, as an insulated ecclesiastical body they can define it however they choose (and thus demand that ordinands conform to that definition). But let them not suffer under the delusion that they're defining "Reformed" broadly across time and for the entire world (a potential problem with Clark's recent project, no?).

  12. Chris,

    I think I did imply that you "proffered a theological argument for confessional moderation." If that is bad, sorry. :D

    Here is, what I think to be a great question, who "owns" the title "Reformed?" If we can figure that out then we can ask him or her if the definition can or has been changed.

  13. Am I wrong to assume that your great question is supposed to be great sarcasm?

  14. Faris,

    I would not say great sacrasm, but yes, it was a rhetorical question. Thought I would like to know how a theological movement can refine itself. In other words, what is the mechanism that is used by a theological movement to refine itself?

  15. (NB: I'm not arguing for the Amyraldian position but only using it as an example for this discussion)


    It would seem that your analogy with Arianism doesn't work with the question about who is now Reformed.

    The question of Arianism was a look back to the scriptures to better define the second person of the Trinity. If an Arian could have pointed back to a N.T. author and said, "This gospel writer (or Paul, etc.)clearly teaches our understanding of the Son" then the Arian could have proved his case that he was within the bounds of Christianity. However, no one who is within orthodoxy would claim that any N.T. writing conveys or teaches "there was a time when [the Son] was not." Therefore, kicking Arianism out of Christianity is not the same problem as you have presented within your Reformed dilemma. Mainly because Arianism has no true inheritance from Matthew, John, Paul or any of the Scriptures.

    With the Reformed question, as you said above, I do not think we are asking what is scriptural and what is not scriptural. However, we are asking what teachings represented the reformation of the church. Just as the proponents and opponents of Nicaea were appealing to Scripture to make their claim, we are now appealing to the sources of the Reformation to make our claims. As pointed out above by Mr. Donato and conceded by yourself, it just so happens that a modern day Amyraldian can appeal to the reformation and say, "Look there were Amyraldians that represented the Reformation." The modern day Amyraldian's inheritance of doctrine is substantial whereas the Arian can only claim a false inheritance.

    The Arian has no font from which he came, but the Amyraldian or [insert whatever Reformed view here], has an actual origin within the Reformed corpus. You can't just ignore the diversity of the Reformation.

    Now we can say that the imputation of active/passive obedience is orthodox and all the other views are heterodox, just as I'm sure many have throughout the Reformed tradition, but you really can't say to someone "my inheritance is the true inheritance and your inheritance is a false inheritance because that's the way we want it to be."

    I'm not sure I've proved anything here other than its not a good idea to use Arius when talking about refining the definition of Reformed. I do think that it is important to recognize that there is an objectivity to what is/isn't Reformed and that it's not just what we say it is. Hopefully I've not misrepresented your position.



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