This is the start of a few posts where I “show my cards”, as it were, to some doctrinal developments in my own theology, which has happened over a period of 2-3 years. In this post I’m going to critique the theology of limited atonement and offer an argument for universal atonement or better put, objective atonement.
I’ve become convinced within the last couple years that limited atonement is not a biblical doctrine; rather, it is a logical conclusion based off of Augustine’s and Calvin’s doctrine of unconditional election. This post is not a critique of election, but it is a critique of taking logic too far. Limited atonement historically, it is almost certain, was not a doctrine that Calvin held (or even had the categories for), but is rather a Reformed scholastic development of the logic Calvin’s doctrine of election. The logic is that if God has determined to save only the elect, then Christ must’ve died only for the elect. Thus, the atonement is limited, not in its power of course, but certainly in its scope and embrace. Whatever you think of election, what I want to propose here is that the doctrine of limited atonement might be logical, but it is not biblical. The reason I say this is because limited atonement bases its doctrine after the scope of election, when in fact atonement doctrine should be based off of the reality of the incarnation (election is a decretal reality. It should not affect the Christological doctrines, including atonement theology). Put another way, I am arguing that the incarnation is intimately connected to the atonement and demands that Christ’s cross-work be all-embracing, objective and for every human being.
What do I mean? I want us to consider: what happened in the incarnation? It is not simply that God the Son become a man to be a representative or a legal head. That is true, but not true enough. When we think of the incarnation, we must consider the metaphysical, ontological realities involved. The incarnation was a dramatic, reality shifting event: God the Son took upon himself a human nature and entered into the common, shared reality of mankind. And in doing so, he altered the human condition forever.
I’m convinced that this is something the Western Christian world, with its individual emphasis, fails to realize: within the biblical worldview, the human race is not a collection of individuals; rather, the human race is a collective unity. The nature that all humans share is an ontological oneness. We all share in the same nature, thus uniting us all in a unique way. This is why when Adam fell into sin and death, we all fell with him. We are a unity. We are all metaphysically joined, and Adam’s sin affects us negatively because of that unity. Thus many of the Eastern Fathers have tended to talk about original sin in medical terms instead of legal terms. If a leg is amputated, the foot and toes die too. This is because they are all connected. It is the same with humanity.
This affects our view of the incarnation and consequently of the death and resurrection of Christ: Christ’s death and resurrection was not simply on our behalf; of course, it was. But it was also a radical participation in humanity’s shared fallenness. Through his union with the human condition in the incarnation, Christ participated in our common death and overcame it in his resurrection. Thus it was not simply that Christ died on the cross: the entire Adamic reality died with him in the cross. And it was not simply that Christ rose in the resurrection: the last Adam lifted humanity out of the grave through his victory over death, thus glorifying and divinizing humanity in himself. The cross and resurrection are massive, ontological, reality-shifting events when placed in this light.
JB Torrance, a Presbyterian minister, coined an important phrase to describe the importance of the incarnation: the all-inclusive humanity of Christ. What did he mean? Gary Deddo explains:
By identifying Jesus’ human nature as being “all-inclusive” JB was pointing out that Jesus’ humanity was vitally and really, that is ontologically, linked to all humanity, to every single human being. The human nature that Jesus assumed was not simply his own individual or autonomous humanity, one relatively independent of all other human beings. No, the human nature he possessed was shared by all humanity. The human nature he assumed he held in common with every human person…
The grounds for JB’s emphasis on the all-inclusive humanity of the incarnate Son of God is not found simply in the fact that Jesus, as accounted for in the New Testament revelation, has all the characteristics of being a human being in the same way we are. The foundation is laid in the meaning and significance given by the biblical revelation to his humanity in relation to all others. This reaches a high point in Paul’s designation of Jesus as the prototypical Adam (the created Adam being the type, Rom. 5:14) and as the last (eschatos) or second (deuteros) man/Adam (1Cor. 15:45-47). This Jesus is presented in biblical revelation as the actual new life-giving head of humanity, not just in name, but in being and so in actual effect. He is in fact the Lord of all humanity — as one of humanity. Witness to this fact can be found not only in Romans 5 but also in Ephesians 1 where, as Irenaeus saw, the place where all humanity was re-gathered, reunited, reheaded up (anakephalaiosis, v. 10) was in the very person of Jesus. (Participatio Journal, volume 3, “JB Torrance on the All-Inclusive Humanity of Jesus Christ” by Gary Deddo, pp 247, 250)
Gary Deddo goes on to describe humanity is terms of a tree (see the icon above). Adam was the first human off of whom we branch. His death was ours, not legally per se, but actually; his apostasy corrupted all of humanity, and thus all are born into death. Jesus is the second Adam who, by uniting himself to the whole of the human tree, entered into our condition and through his death and resurrection, shifted the ontological state of humanity in an important way. Thus, and this is the point, what happened to Christ in his life, death and resurrection, happened to all humanity. All-embracing.
This also accounts for the striking universal statements about human salvation in certain Pauline texts. To be sure, Paul speaks of wrath and judgment, and of the need for conversion. But there are also striking, indeed alarming texts which speak of the cross-work of Christ as affecting all men without exception. For instance, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:18 that in Christ God was “reconciling the world to himself”. Or Romans 5:18: “therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men”. Or Colossians 1:18-19, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross”. What can we do with these texts? If we are truly and really honest, we must say that in Christ something fundamental has happened to mankind. Mankind has been saved from death and sin!
How can this be so? The incarnation: God’s union with our common humanity renders the atonement holistic and not limited: what has happened to Christ has thus happened to the whole of the human nature without exception. Thus in Christ, all mankind and the entire cosmos is in principle saved. This is why many of the early church fathers taught that the incarnation was in itself a saving event.
But, what about the need for individual conversion? Does this mean that we’re all saved and we just don’t know it (something that Barth taught)? No. To clarify, I want to bring in one more voice, and that is the Lutheran tradition. The Lutherans have a doctrine that they call “objective justification”. Jordan Cooper explains:
In the nineteenth century, American Lutherans began making the distinction between objective justification and subjective justification. Objective justification refers to the historia salutis reality of Christ’s justification at his resurrection. The resurrection is Christ’s own vindication before God, and consequently becomes that of the Christian through faith. This appropriation of Christ’s objective work through faith is subjective justification…
Objective justification flows from the reality of the incarnation. In being born as a human, Jesus takes upon himself not simply the nature of one individual man, but of all humanity. Thus all Jesus accomplishes and does with his life is accomplished for all of humankind. His vindication at his resurrection is thus the justification of all people. (Cooper, Jordan. The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3870-3873, 3878-3881)
Thus Jesus’ resurrection affects all people; it is an objective work that shifts the human existence as we know it. However, it must be subjectively received and applied. Mind you, the Lutheran church believes in unconditional election! But they don’t buy limited atonement. Thus this teaching of objective justification verses subjective justification.
I’ve gone long enough. In the next couples posts I will look at justification from the perspective of Paul’s very first sermon, and then at differing models of atonement.