Response to James White on the Atonement

‘In Dr. James White’s most recent Dividing Line broadcast (seen here) he critiqued my podcast with Dr. David Allen (heard here).

In the YouTube video below I present a visual illustration contrasting Calvinism’s Limited view of atonement versus the Traditionalist’s Provisional view.

Additionally, Dr. White suspiciously declared that he would like to see the quote from Dr. Phil Johnson which supported my commentary about Calvinist’s historical disagreement over this topic, so here it is:

“…don’t imagine that there is just one view for the Limited Atonement position and another view for the Unlimited Atonement position. As if there are two polar opposites here and they compete against each other. This is not really an either/or position even among Calvinists. And in fact, historically, the most intense debates about Limited Atonement have come over the past 400 years, they’ve all been intramural debates between Calvinists, among Calvinists. There are at least three major divisions of Calvinists. There are the high Calvinists. They have one opinion about how the atonement is limited; they tend to try to say it’s limited in its sufficiency. You’ve got the moderate Calvinists and you’ve got the low Calvinists and they all have different views and there are many shades and degrees in between. In fact, I doubt if you could find any two Calvinists who agree completely with one another on every text and every nuance related to this verse. You may if you scoured the world find two somewhere but I bet if you could poll every Calvinist in this room you’d find that no two of us agree on every point and every particular related to this issue. There is not just one Calvinist position on limited atonement. There are many. And when you get into individual verses like Second Peter 2, verse 1, there is no such thing as THE Calvinist interpretation of that verse. There are at least six possible Calvinists’ interpretations of it and if we have time at the end I’m going to give you three of them.


Now, how to explain limited atonement continues to be a point of contention among Calvinists of various opinions. Some of you are Calvinists and I warn you now that you may not like everything I have to say about this issue today. But I would advise all of you, Calvinists and Arminians alike, to gain some of your understanding of these complex issues by reading the historical literature on this subject, rather than by simply tuning into Internet debates on this issue. I’m a little weary of those overzealous Calvinists on the Internet who treat everything as simplistically as possible. Always trying to outdo everyone to see who can adopt the highest form of High Calvinism. And as a result, and you can actually see this trend if you watch Calvinist discussions on the Internet. 

Modern Calvinist circles seem to be filled with guys who insist that Christ’s death had no benefit whatsoever for anyone other than the elect and God’s only desire with regard to the reprobate is to damn them period. Too many Calvinists embrace the doctrine of limited atonement, they finally see the truth of it but then they think, “Oh that’s that.” Christ died for the elect and in no sense are their any universal benefits in the atonement, so the atonement is limited to the elect in every sense and it has no relevance whatsoever to the non-elect. I think that’s an extreme position and it’s not supported by many of the classic Calvinist theologians and writers if you read carefully what Calvinists have said throughout history. I want to encourage you read Andrew Fuller and Thomas Boston. Read what people like Robert L. Dabney and William G. T. Shedd and B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge wrote on the subject of the atonement. Read John Owen too, but don’t imagine that John Owens’s book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ represents the only strain of Calvinist thought on the issue. It doesn’t. In fact, far from it. 

If you begin to study this issue in depth you will quickly discover that the classic Calvinist view on the extent of the atonement is a lot less narrow and a lot less cut and dried than the typical seminary student Calvinist on the Internet wants to admit. Historic Calvinism, as a movement has usually acknowledged that there are universal aspects of the atonement. Calvin himself had a view of the extent of the atonement that was far more broad and, and far more extensive than the average Calvinist today would care to recognize. And I’ll show you some of that if time allows. 

And, while I’m making concessions to the other side let me also admit, that this is one issue where historical theology is not overwhelmingly on the side of the Calvinists. And until really some of the later Catholic scholastics raised this question and began to debate it some time in the Middle Ages, most of the church fathers and most of the leading theological writers in the church, both orthodox and heretical, most of them assumed that Christ died for all of humanity and that was the end of that. (…)

Also, Dr. White wrongly accuses Dr. Allen of error by suggesting those non-Calvinists holding to the  Governmental view of the atonement would not claim that Christ died for the sins of all humanity. Just as Dr. Allen explained in our original podcast, some Calvinists tend to conflate the intent, extent and application of the atonement when it suites their purpose, while only acknowledging the distinctions when it helps to support their case. White is guilty of this quite often in my estimation.

Hugo Grotius, the most notable proponent of the Governmental theory of atonement, argued that Christ’s death is not a strict equivalent to what man owed, but only that God accepted it as such. In other words, “Christ’s death is the equivalent of our punishment only in the sense that by it the dignity of God’s government is as effectively proclaimed and vindicated as it would have been by our punishment.” <link>  So, while Grotius would have denied the individualized penal substitutional theory proposed by some, he would have no problem declaring that Christ died provisionally for every individual. This view would most certainly fit within the unlimited perspective as in stark contrast with the limited view being proposed by White and other 5-pointers — just as Allen rightly concluded.


source: Leighton Flowers (soteriology101).