Garrett on Calvinism in the Alabama Baptist, Pt. 3

In his article, “Does Dortian Calvinism have weight of Scripture in its favor?, ” Dr. Garrett appropriately raises the issue of the biblical basis for the five points of Calvinism. He writes,

One may be inclined to say, relative to the teachings of Dortian Calvinism, that such a system should claim the allegiance of present-day Baptists only if its teachings can be clearly validated by and found to be grounded in the teachings of the Old and the New Testaments. Tradition, however important, must bow to the higher authority of the canonical Scriptures. Hence we need to inquire as to whether the tenets of Dortian Calvinism are indeed supported by the prevailing teachings of the Bible.

This approach should be applauded by all Christians, regardless of what one thinks of of the doctrines of grace. The final question is, what does the Word of God say?

Dr. Garrett asserts, “Those who teach limited atonement are prone to cite five New Testament passages in support of their position.” He then quotes from those verses: Matthew 1:21, John 10:15b, John, 15:13, Acts 20:28c and Ephesians 5:25). Though I am not familiar with arguments for particular redemption based on the third of these references, the other four do help establish that position. However, I would be quick to add that those who teach particular redemption, or definite atonement, do not limit themselves to five verses only. Dr. Garrett would not disagree with this and I note it only for those who might be tempted to take his words to suggest otherwise.

Here is a secret that we Calvinists need to make known more broadly: everyone who is not a universalist limits the atonement at some point. Either you limit it in its design or you limit it in its application. That is, unless you believe that Jesus’ death actually does save every person who has ever lived or will ever live.

The case for particular redemption rests on the Bible’s teaching about the nature of the atonement, the intent of it and what it secured. What actually took place in the death of Jesus? Was the atoning work accomplished there objective, or subjective? Was it an actual atonement or a potential one? Did Jesus actually save sinners or merely make them savable? It is in the searching of biblical answers to these questions that the case for particular redemption is made.

Unfortunately, after citing the 5 verses above, Dr. Garrett does not attempt any exegesis of them. No doubt the limitations of space as well as the context of the article inhibited that. The lack of any examination of these verses in their contexts blunts the force of his summary concusion:

The accumulated references to “His people,” “the sheep,” “his friends” and “the church” are said to show that the intention of Jesus in His death was to die only for elect humans.

From this, Dr. Garrett launches into the citation of three kinds of biblical texts that that believes support general atonement: the “all” texts, the “many” texts, and the “world” texts. Unfortunately, none of the seventeen verses that he cites are engaged or interpreted. They are merely quoted. Again, I will concede the limitations of that format but it is regrettable that we are denied the serious exposition of these texts by one as capable as Dr. Garrett. Mere citation of verses does not advance theological discourse and tends to give the false perspective that there are some “Calvinistic” verses and some “Arminian” verses in the Bible.

After citing five New Testament verses that use the word “all” in relation to salvation, this observation is inserted:

Augustine of Hippo interpreted the “all” and “all men” to mean all classes and types of human beings, and thus he could retain limited atonement.

One could feasibly accuse Augustine of arbitrarily assigning that meaning to the word all, though Dr. Garrett is perhaps citing him as an example of one who recognizes that the little word “all” cannot be simplistically be taken as a universally inclusive word each time in appears in Holy Scripture. As Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament explains,

In particular one may speak of a summative, implicative and distributive signification of πας [the Greek word for “all”] as the term embraces either a totality or sum as an independent entitity (summative), an inclusion of all individual parts or representatives of a concept (implicative),or extension to relatively independent particulars (distributive). If the reference is to the attainment of the supreme height or breadth of a concept, we have an elative (or amplificative) significance (Vol. 5, p. 887).

Even without the technicalities of Kittel’s analysis anyone who reads the New Testament carefully recognizes that the oft-quoted adage that “all means all and that’s all that all means” may get lots of Fundamentalists laughing and shouting “amen,” but it hardly sheds light on how that word is used in the Bible. I will limit myself to one example: “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him” (Matthew 3:5).

The problem that we Calvinists have with citing the “all” texts as if they prove a general atonement is this: for that case to be made, the nature of the atonement must be altered, usually away from an objective reality to a potential one. Consider 2 Corinthians 5:14, that Dr. Garrett cites. “One died for all, and therefore all died” If this teaches general atonement (One died for all who have ever lived or ever will live), then we must infer that all who have ever lived or who ever will live have in fact died with Christ. But no orthodox believer thinks that all mankind has spiritually died to their sin. The proponent of general atonement responds that Paul is speaking “potentially” or conditionally here–all those who trust in Christ spiritually die to their sin. But, that is not what the text says, and if that is what it means, then in order for the parallel between the two deaths to stand, the death that One died for all must likewise be only potential. Thus the atonement is drained of its objectivity and definiteness.

The “many” texts might just as easily be cited as supporting a limited perspective as a universal perspective since many is by definition less than the totality.

The “world” passages fall under the same critique as the “all” passages. If they are interpreted to mean “every person without exception” then the nature of the atonement must be altered. What happens if we interpret “kosmos” in John 1:29 in this way? “The lamb of God takes away the sin of the world [every person without exception].” If Jesus’ death actually does this then no one will have any sin to bear and thus everyone will be saved.

Granted, our brothers and sisters who believe a general atonement do not believe this. But our argument with them is “why not?” How can the atonement of Christ be general and universalism be avoided without the nature of the atonement being somehow deobjectified? The answers offered to that question are less compelling to me than the answers offered by the Calvinistic understanding of the death of Christ.