Thursday, June 01, 2006

Limited Atonement Debate...

... between the leading lights of Oak Hill Thelogical College and Moore Theological College (both evangelical Anglican colleges).

click HERE to be taken to the action.

H/T to Marc Lloyd for clueing me in on the debate.

So far the message count is 77.

Also weighing in on LA over on his blog is David Field, lecturer at Oak Hill (see his June 1 entries).

It looks to your humble correspondant like the Oak Hill group has answered all the exegetical and epistemological objections put forward by the MTC crowd.

P.S. : Is there such a thing as going bankrupt for a good cause ? (I'm the one who made the pints offer).

UPDATE : The message count is now at 121 and since Alastair joined the discussion LA has been taking quite a beating, in my opinion.

Yet, if we wanted to keep this paradigm, I could agree with Chris Thomson on his 'sufficient for any, efficient for the elect' formulation.

10 comments:

Chris Thomson said...

Hi Celal

Can I be slightly cheeky and ask which of Alastair's arguments you found so persuasive against limited atonement?

His objection, if I understand him rightly, was not to the idea that Christ died for his people in a way that he didn't die for others, but to the idea that God gave a fixed and unchanging number of people to his Son before the creation of the world. That is, his quarrel is not really with limited atonement as such but with unconditional election - the 'U' of 'TULIP' as opposed to the 'L'.

Of course, if you reject the doctrine of election, then asking whether Christ died for the non-elect becomes a non-question (as Alastair maintains), so the 'L' has to go as well. (And in Alastair's case we also seem to have lost the 'I' and the 'P' somewhere along the way too). But if you reject individual, unconditional election, then what do you do with Ephesians 1:4, Romans 9:11, Revelation 13:8, Acts 13:48 etc.?

P.S. Michael McClenahan (whose views I respect on these things) didn't like my "sufficient for any" formula. See his comments over at the discussion on Mandy's blog.

Celal Birader said...

Dear Chris,

Thank you for your comments. We must get a group together as soon as you are back from Down Under and get those pints over at the C&D. (The weather over has warmed up quite a bit over here so the thought of a nice cold beer is even more appealing).

I understood Alastair slightly differently. I may have misconstrued his comments in which case please do set me straight. Here goes.

God has a fixed and unchanging number of people who will eventually inherit eternal life (election) . That particular number may be, or given God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge indeed, MUST be fixed before the creation of the world.

Up to here I think we are both agreed BUT what I understood Alastair to be presenting us, particularly with his allusion to John 15, is that this process, as it occurs in space and time and from one day to the next until such time as we leave this “mortal coil” is a messy business indeed and so that you will have additions and deletions along the way before you get to that fixed final number in Heaven at the end of time singing “Halleluiah”.

If that is the case then “election” is merely the set of all those folk who end up in Heaven singing “Halleluiah” . Now obviously, the doctrine of election is one of those things God wants us to know about and that is why we have teaching about it in the Bible. (I will get to the Scriptures you mention later). It also seems to me that the teaching is there because God wants us to derive some genuine knowledge, some genuine comfort, and some genuine encouragement even some assurance from it otherwise what is the point?

The question then is how are we supposed to understand and apply the teaching? Is something like TULIP the one right and only way to think about this? Ok, let’s consider that for a moment then. The Presbyterian & Reformed will tell us that the “elect” are absolutely 100% guaranteed safe from the punishment of Hell. Great! So we ask them: “who are these “elect” then?” They will tell us: “it is those who persevere to the end”. Okay. But that’s just tautological and it doesn’t tell me anything! It doesn’t give me any useful knowledge about “election” or “the elect”.

So perhaps we have to think about how we define the terms we are using. Then, of course, the questions will just keep on coming: What is “election”? Who are “the elect”? Is there only one sort of election? Is there is alongside “individual” election also “corporate” election? What does the election of “Israel” mean? What does the election of Israel mean to us Christians, if anything? How are we to think about things like apostasy and committing the “unpardonable sin” (Gospels) or “sinning unto death” (1 John) in the light of election?

Now let me get back to your comments. You say Alastair is actually rejection election. Ok, that’s interesting. Because as my mind has been pondering over this discussion (I haven’t been able to completely turn it off in my head) these past few days it occurred to me to see what Alastair has to say on the subject of election on his blog. I have bookmarked a series of 3 posts he has on the subject but not yet had a chance to look at them.

You go on to say that the other petals of the TULIP also fall off. Ok, I’ll take your word on that as I haven’t worked out all the implications as you obviously have. But that does not surprise me. Neither does it surprise me that you and Michael McClenahan have taken opposite views on LA formulation. It shows me that you are both thinking from within the paradigm and the paradigm is inadequate to explain the data.

Ok now let’s look at the Scriptures. I want to start with Acts 13:48 because to be honest I still don’t know how to deal with this verse. At first I reasoned that the context had to do with the Gentile mission hence it must be the election of the Gentiles who had heard the preaching was an election or an engrafting into Israel. I was reaching for a corporate view election but then latter part of the verse says “all who were appointed for eternal life believed”.

Of course, it doesn’t say “all who believed were appointed for eternal life” which is maybe how we want to read it.

Regarding the other Scriptures (Ephesians 1:4,Romans 9:11,Revelation 13:8) I might say that in all those verses the election becomes evident after the fact as when we look back on it we are able to see “yeah that was all God’s doing” or “it’s ones God intended to be saved who were saved in the end”.

I suppose as individual believers we can console ourselves with the thought that once we are on the road of Christian discipleship the presumption is that we will be treated as one of the “elect” by God. This then gives us great confidence particularly if we are living in places where there is severe persecution.

Yet still it is our weaknesses and faults that we feel most strongly so this presumption is , I don’t think, by itself strong enough to give us assurance because we do fail all the time and so we might think we are not “elect” after all.

Anyway, I leave it here for now and look forward to your response.

Chris Thomson said...

Yes, I'll happily join you for a pint when I'm back - it's probably easier to chat face-to-face. Briefly, though:

The Reformed view is that the working out of God's decrees in space and time is, from our perspective, indeed a 'messy business', as you put it. Alastair, however, seems to be saying more. He is saying that the Father gives people to Jesus and takes them away in space and time. Now, this is true if intended as a description of who is currently in the church. But if it's intended to deny the reality of election before the creation of the world, (as I think the quotations below show), then it is false (as I think you agree).

You may need to reread his various long contributions to be convinced that this is what Alastair is saying, but I hope the following quotes will at least give some indication that his objection is to election rather than to 'limited atonement' as such. His words are in italics, my comments in square brackets:

'The claim that the limited character of the atonement is that Christ died for the Church and Israel in a way that He did not die for others is relatively unobjectionable to most of the opponents of limited atonement that I have encountered.'

[But that is precisely the point of limited atonement!]

'I do not believe that election is any more limited than the atonement is. The object of election is not a set of particular individuals but the body of Christ.'

[Note (a) the rejection of individual election and (b) the false dichotomy. The Reformed hold to both these aspects of election without divorcing them. Alastair thinks it is impossible to hold them together, as the following quotation shows.]

'My problem with this is that, in the final analysis, the objects of election are individuals, rather than the new humanity solidarity of the totus Christus. You will probably argue that there is no need to oppose these things: the object of election is the totus Christus and the particular individuals that constitute it. I disagree.'

'We become elect when we are united to Christ in history. We would cease to be elect if we were cut off from Him. The Book of Life is Christ. Those in Him are elect; those outside of Him are not.'

[This is very significant. Alastair thinks that election takes place in history. I cannot see how this can be reconciled with the repeated references to election 'before the creation of the world' I cited in my earlier comment. Moreover I strongly disagree with Alastair's interpretation of John's gospel on this point. Jesus speaks of sheep who he already has but who are not yet part of the fold (John 10:16). This is hard to square with election taking place when people come to Christ.]

'This is, I believe, the problem with many Reformed doctrines of election. The salvation of particular individuals rather than others assumes a teleological centrality that is unhealthy in its anthropocentricity (particularly in surpalapsarian formulations, but also in infralapsarian formulations).'

[Admittedly you'd be forgiven for missing the point here. He seems to be saying that individual election is too man-centred because it assumes that God's goal is the salvation of the elect. But again, the Reformed understanding is that God elected specific individuals for salvation for the praise of HIS glory (Eph. 1). Alastair seems to be saying that you can't believe that God planned to save certain individuals without believing that that is his ultimate goal.]

For the avoidance of doubt, I believe Michael and I agree wholeheartedly on the nature, extent, and intent of the atonement. The difference, if any, is on how best to express it, and I think we are both happy to say 'sufficient for all' in answer to the question 'how valuable?' and 'sufficient for any' in answer to the question, 'who is included?' I really think the paradigm explains the data better than any other, but inevitably if you ask different questions of it you'll get different answers. Maybe we can chat more though when I get home. In the meantime I really do recommend reading the 28 pages I mentioned in Turretin - it's in the library and is well worth pondering.

Hope that helps a bit. Looking forward to catching up with you back in Blighty.

Celal Birader said...

[Chris] Yes, I'll happily join you for a pint when I'm back - it's probably easier to chat face-to-face. Briefly, though:The Reformed view is that the working out of God's decrees in space and time is, from our perspective, indeed a 'messy business', as you put it. Alastair, however, seems to be saying more.

Dear Chris,

Yes face to face would be better, I agree.

As I had mentioned in my last correspondance, I was going to read what Alastair had to say on his blog about “election”. I now have had a chance to read his material which consists of 3 posts on the subject of "Election".

One thing seems clear is that Alastair does not have much time for what the Reformed call “the doctrine of decrees”, or at least not in the way we would understand it.

I don’t know if that is a fatal or naughty move on his part or what the implications of it might be to the rest of his theological scheme.

Nevertheless, having said that, he still choses to refer to “election” as a “decree” and he writes :

[ Alastair] “What then is the decree of election? The decree of election is God’s determination to form the totus Christus — Christ, Head and body. The direct object of God’s election is not a particular eternally numbered set of individuals, but Christ Himself. The settled purpose that God is working towards is not the damnation of individual X and the salvation of individual Y, but the gathering together of all creation in His Son.”


[Celal] Also he seems firmly convinced that the Incarnation would have occurred regardless of the Fall.

Here is a summary quote of his position :

[ Alastair] “My point in all of this is that election has to do with God’s purpose to bring humanity into the fullness of life in Christ, not primarily with salvation from sin. Election has to do with the telos for which mankind was created — to be a bride for the Son, to enjoy the full rights and priviliges of sonship, etc.”

[Chris] He is saying that the Father gives people to Jesus and takes them away in space and time. Now, this is true if intended as a description of who is currently in the church. But if it's intended to deny the reality of election before the creation of the world, (as I think the quotations below show), then it is false (as I think you agree).

You may need to reread his various long contributions to be convinced that this is what Alastair is saying, but I hope the following quotes will at least give some indication that his objection is to election rather than to 'limited atonement' as such. His words are in italics, my comments in square brackets:

[ Alastair] 'The claim that the limited character of the atonement is that Christ died for the Church and Israel in a way that He did not die for others is relatively unobjectionable to most of the opponents of limited atonement that I have encountered.'

[Chris] [But that is precisely the point of limited atonement!]

[Alastair] 'I do not believe that election is any more limited than the atonement is. The object of election is not a set of particular individuals but the body of Christ.'

[Chris] [Note (a) the rejection of individual election and (b) the false dichotomy. The Reformed hold to both these aspects of election without divorcing them. Alastair thinks it is impossible to hold them together, as the following quotation shows.]

[Celal] On the face of it you are absolutely right in pointing out the illogical in Alastair’s statement at this point. I have a suspicion there is more to “his system” . He seems to have worked out in his mind a bigger philosophical (and theological) framework out of which he is making these comments. It may be that he and us are defining and using our terms differently. I don’t’ know.

[Alastair] 'My problem with this is that, in the final analysis, the objects of election are individuals, rather than the new humanity solidarity of the totus Christus. You will probably argue that there is no need to oppose these things: the object of election is the totus Christus and the particular individuals that constitute it. I disagree.'
'We become elect when we are united to Christ in history. We would cease to be elect if we were cut off from Him. The Book of Life is Christ. Those in Him are elect; those outside of Him are not.'

[Chris] [This is very significant. Alastair thinks that election takes place in history. I cannot see how this can be reconciled with the repeated references to election 'before the creation of the world' I cited in my earlier comment. ]

[Celal] Yes, his exegesis does seem confused at this point, I agree. Or it may be that he sees “corporate” ( or ‘totus Christus’, as he calls it) election taking place ‘before the creation of the world’ with “individual” election occuring in time. What could be wrong with that as a paradigm ? Isn’t such a “double election” better than “double pre-destination” (i.e. the one about the damned also being pre-destined to Hell, which the Calvinist system requires).

[Chris] Moreover I strongly disagree with Alastair's interpretation of John's gospel on this point. Jesus speaks of sheep who he already has but who are not yet part of the fold (John 10:16). This is hard to square with election taking place when people come to Christ.]

[Celal] It may be this dual election thing again.

[Alastair] 'This is, I believe, the problem with many Reformed doctrines of election. The salvation of particular individuals rather than others assumes a teleological centrality that is unhealthy in its anthropocentricity (particularly in surpalapsarian formulations, but also in infralapsarian formulations).'

[Chris] [Admittedly you'd be forgiven for missing the point here. He seems to be saying that individual election is too man-centred because it assumes that God's goal is the salvation of the elect. But again, the Reformed understanding is that God elected specific individuals for salvation for the praise of HIS glory (Eph. 1). Alastair seems to be saying that you can't believe that God planned to save certain individuals without believing that that is his ultimate goal.]

[ Celal] I think it may be a question of emphasis, Chris. Alastair, in what he writes elsewhere about election, seems to have a point when he accuses Reformed theology of failing to incorporate the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s work, and of failing to incorporate in a truly meaningful way the move from Creation to New Creation. He also claims Reformed theology has the effect of attributing what we would frankly recognise as unethical or sub-moral motivations to God and to God’s Plan, as it were.

[Chris] Maybe we can chat more though when I get home. In the meantime I really do recommend reading the 28 pages I mentioned in Turretin - it's in the library and is well worth pondering.Hope that helps a bit. Looking forward to catching up with you back in Blighty.

Yes looking forward to it. I’m sure you, me and whoever else we can gather from Oak Hill can all of us get to the bottom of all this in our new study at the Cock & Dragon.

Meanwhile I will try to get at those pages from Turretin which you recommend.

Yours in Christ …. Celal

Chris Thomson said...

I think you're right that Alastair is happy to affirm that the corporate election of God's people in Christ takes place before the creation of the world. My point is that the verses I cited clearly indicate specific individuals being chosen before the foundation of the world to belong to him. So exegetically I think his position is unsustainable.

There is also a theological problem with it: if God does not elect us unconditionally (that is, before we make any response to Christ), then my inclusion in Christ ultimately depends on me, which seems to give me a ground for boasting (contra Rom. 9 and Scripture passim). The fact that I chose to respond to Christ and another person didn't cannot be because God elected me and not him, but only because I had the moral fibre to make the right decision.

I'm afraid I really can't agree that Reformed theology fails to embrace the cosmic dimensions of Christ's work. I think that could only be argued on the basis of selective reading. To deduce from the cosmic scope of Christ's work that he doesn't elect specific individuals to be a part of that cosmic plan is, in my view, to draw a false conclusion which Scripture doesn't permit.

Alastair said...

A few very brief comments, to clear up possible misunderstandings.

1. I firmly believe in unconditional election. I just don't understand it in quite the same way as Reformed people tend to. I reject the Reformed understanding of unconditional election — the election part, not the unconditional part.

I believe that the election of the totus Christus occurred before the foundation of the world. I believe that we are brought into this election in history.

2. I do not like to think about election in terms of an individual/corporate distinction. I find the language clumsy and unhelpful.

3. I believe that limited atonement and unconditional election need to be carefully distinguished. You can hold some form of Reformed understanding of unconditional election without holding the doctrine of limited atonement. Teleological priority is the issue here, not divine sovereignty (which I accept). Limited atonement goes even further than the Reformed doctrine of election itself, giving individual election an even greater teleological priority.

4. I hold to a doctrine of irresistible grace.

5. I am well aware of verses such as Ephesians 1:3-4; Romans 9:11; Revelation 13:8; 17:8 and Acts 13:48. I don't think that these verses prove the case for common Reformed doctrines of election. I don't see why I should feel uncomfortable with any of them. As I already pointed out, I am quite happy to affirm the unconditional election of individuals, provided that it is properly understood. I might briefly address each of these verses in a future post on my blog.

6. The reference to Jesus having other sheep that do not belong to the particular fold that He is talking of (John 10:16) has nothing to do with elect individuals who have not been saved. It refers to believing Gentiles that God will bring together with believing Jews to form one new fold — the Church.

7. I am well aware of Reformed claims that election is for the glory of God. This doesn't address my point. Individual election still has far too great a teleological priority.


As I mentioned above, I may well write an extended post on this subject on my blog. Hopefully that will make my position a little clearer.

Chris Thomson said...

If understand Alastair's position correctly, he affirms:
(1) that before the foundation of the world God elected the 'totus Christus' (i.e. Christ and his body, the church)
and
(2) that in history God elects specific individuals to belong to the totus Christus
but denies
(3) that before the foundation of the world God elected specific individuals to belong to the totus Christus.

Even though some of the verses I cited (e.g. Eph 1:4) could, taken in isolation, be understood to affirm (1) only and not (3), I don't think the same can be said for all of them. Thus the book of life has the names of specific individuals written in it from before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8; 17:8).

And (2) needs a little more explanation. Which comes first: God's decision to elect or my decision to believe?

If the latter (which is what Alastair's comments on Mandy's blog seemed to me to imply), then I think he is at odds with Acts 13:48; John 6:44 and John 10:26. (Incidentally John 10:26 illustrates the problem with saying that Jesus' flock consists of those who already believe. He doesn't say 'you aren't my sheep because you don't believe' but 'you don't believe because you are not my sheep'.)

But if, alternatively, God's election of specific individuals comes before their decision to believe, then on what basis does God elect them? And what do you gain by denying (in the face of Rev 13:8 and 17:8) that this election took place before the foundation of the world?

Celal Birader said...

Well Alastair i now get the impression you are all over the theological landscape after this last comment of yours on my blog.

You say you don't believe in "corporate" or "individual" election that this is an "unhelpful distinction" yet all that you have been saying has been pointing in that direction.

When you get around to doing your post on your blog it might be helpful if you could deal with how you see the Reformed "doctrine of decrees" -- whether you hold to it, reject it or understand it differently.

The Reformed position at least fits together and is coherent in addition to being biblical. Criticising it just for wrong "emphasis" is not really a sufficient critique unless you can match it for coherence and faithfulness to the Bible as well.

Frankly, I'm not as impressed with you position as i once might have been.

Alastair said...

Chris,

I believe that God's decision precedes my decision to believe. I firmly hold to irresistible grace. Although God often permits people to resist the call of His grace, where He wills to overcome that resistance, the resistance is overcome.

What do I gain by saying this? The issue that I have is one of teleological priority and by denying that this election occurred in 'eternity past' or something like that, individual election is seen to be secondary to far greater purposes that God has in creation. There are other things too, which I will deal with in my post (if I get around to posting on the subject).

I see no problem with Revelation 13:8 and 17:8. Particular persons can truly be described as being chosen (or having their names written in the Book of Life) before the foundation of the world. However — and this is my main point — this is not true of us before we have been brought into relationship with Christ by the Spirit in history. Before union with Christ no one has their name written in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world.

Many of the issues that I have here come down to a theological understanding of temporality. I am arguing that Calvinists project things into mundane temporality that do not belong there and end up with unhealthy deterministic notions. The picture that Calvinists often present is one in which the divine decree happens as if in the far distant past (in an infinite extension of our time backwards). The divine decree is consequently regarded as a closed and finished event that just waits to be worked out in history. I am arguing that this is simply mistaken. God's relationship to time is far more complex than this.

A more deeply theological understanding of time need not see the divine decree as a closed event in the past. We are inclined to think of history as something that plods on from past to future — history as purely linear. However, this does not make sense of a number of ways in which the NT speaks. The NT is able to speak of the Incarnate Christ as pre-existing everything. On one hand we must say that Christ became flesh at a particular point in history. On the other hand we must recognize that the NT is perfectly comfortable with speaking of Christ pre-existing the historical event of the Incarnation as man.

This can be hard to wrap our heads around. The NT teaches a form of ‘eschatological pre-existence’. As Douglas Farrow puts it in Ascension and Ecclesia: ‘The pre-existence of Jesus in and for our world is fully a feature of our world only retroactively, by recapitulation.’ In the Johannine understanding of Christ, for example, this is particularly clear (e.g. John 1:30; 3:13; 8:56-58; 12:40-41). In such statements John is concerned with the God-man as pre-existent, not with a pre-existent divine figure. It is the man Jesus Christ who is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega (Revelation 22:13). Jesus’ humanity never slips out of view in such statements. Much the same thing could be demonstrated in the theology of the Apostle Paul.

Jesus Christ gathers all things into His own personal history. He is before all things. It is in His Time that all of our times are brought together. Christ’s time is not to be understood as a mere episode in our time; our time becomes an episode in His Time.

This re-ordering of time only becomes visible to us within the mystery of the Church. In the Church we know the Incarnate Christ both as the One who precedes us at the foundation of the world and the One who awaits us at the consummation of history. Christ's Time, following the ascension, is quite different from our own.

Christ is not merely given a starring role within God’s great drama; He comprehends the entire drama within Himself. The drama of history is written out of and into His story. The fact of creation is thus contingent on the fact of Incarnation. This is a profoundly relational understanding of temporality.

It is within such an understanding of time that the biblical language of election before the foundation of the earth begins to make sense. Just as statements of Christ’s pre-existence as man must be understood in terms of eschatology, so must statements about eternal election. The Christ who freely calls us into His family is the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever, the One who in free to dispose Himself as He wills in relation to time.

To be written into Christ’s story is to be written into the Book of Life from the foundation of the world and yet this, within a relational understanding of temporality, is not something that happens in our absence. It rather occurs as the Alpha and Omega brings us into relationship with Himself in history. (This also explains how the very same book that suggests that names are written in the Book of Life before the foundation of the world, also suggests that names can be blotted out — 3:5).

Christ is not merely fulfilling a role within some script (read 'decree') that was penned for Him and all other human beings at some distant closed point within the past, rather He is freely and creatively disposing Himself in relation to the creation in a manner that makes possible the retelling of the creation’s story from the beginning. Consequently, the future, the present and the past are all open to renarration as they are redemptively and consummatively caught up within the story of Jesus Christ. It is only by means of the recapitulation that takes place within the Church that we are able to speak of ourselves as having our names written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world. Prior to this, somewhat paradoxically, we cannot truly speak of this being the case.


Celal,

You misread me. I was never working in terms of a simplistic individual/corporate distinction. My argument is that the object of election is a personal solidarity, which is neither simplistically individual or corporate.

Chris Thomson said...

I'm sorry Alastair, but I find your approach very worrying and rather strange.

If history is not linear then to say that our names were written in the book of life before the foundation of the world is meaningless. Otherwise what does it mean? Doesn't the very word "before" imply temporal precession?

Similarly, what does it mean to say that Christ existed as a man before the incarnation - that is, that Christ was a man before he was made man? That too seems plainly nonsensical.

That Christ existed before the incarnation is not in dispute. None of the Scriptures you cited say that he did so as a man. (Nor, incidentally does Rev. 3:5 suggest that any names will be blotted out of the book of life. It speaks only of names not being blotted out.)

I'm afraid that to my eyes all this seems like an elaborate and rather bizarre mechanism to evade the plain meaning of Scripture. Your repeated references to "teleological priority" add nothing to your argument, since we only know what God's priorities are from Scripture and in my view you have not shown that the Reformed view conflicts with Scripture.

Please excuse my bluntness, and please feel free to come back at me and prove me wrong. However I didn't really intend to be drawn into a discussion on election so I'm afraid I'm going to leave it here.