Causal vs Social Centered — Part III: Atonement

, posted by Martin Glynn

The atonement debate is really interesting to me because to some degree it is a red herring. Both sides seem to think that the issue has to do with the nature of the Atonement. However it doesn’t. Consider the following:

  • Both agree that a person is not born justified
  • Both sides agree that a person becomes justified when they have faith
  • Both sides agree that a person is completely justified once the atonement is applied to them
    • So we agree on efficacy
  • Both sides agree that Christ’s atonement was substitutionary
  • Both sides agree that Christ’s atonement is of infinite in power
    • So no difference in “spilt blood”
  • Both sides agree that it is particular in application

So… what’s the actual difference? The difference has to do with the texts in Scripture that teach that Christ died for all. We have to deal with the fact that Christ died to save all, yet not all are saved. We differ in how we deal with this discrepancy.

Limited Atonement

When talking about being casually centered, what we are talking about is a concern about cause and effect relationships. There are two aspects of casual centeredness that come into play with the issue of the atonement. One is a concern for power. Since power is the ability to cause things, naturally power is a casual concern. More on this later. The second issue is a tendency to describe things in mechanical ways. In a machine, this gear causes that gear to move, which causes that doohickey to do the thing, and voila, the clock works. We can certainly see this in the way they describe the will.

We see this clearly in the way they often handle the Scriptural passages regarding the universality of the atonement. For their view to be correct, they must somehow qualify the statements that God wanted to save everyone to affirm the Scripture. Historically they’ve done this in a couple of ways1, but for our purposes of displaying the mechanical nature of their thought, we are going to focus on the most popular approach today: the two-will theory.

The two-will theory is the idea that God’s will is complicated. There is a part of His will that really does want to save everyone, but there is another part of His will that only wants to save the elect. Therefore, it is fine for God to express that first desire, even if it is the second desire that He desires more. So it is true that God wants to save the whole world, but He wants to save only the elect even more.

Now look at the way in which the will of God is treated. It is segmented, and the question of which segment brings about action is emphasized. Now mostly I see this as a theological trick to get around a hermeneutical problem, but the intriguing thing to me is that it treats God’s will kind of like a machine with parts that have different functions.

Before we move on, I do want to make an apologetic point. First, I don’t think this idea is as mysterious as the Calvinist makes it out to be. We experience this kind of thing all the time. It’s called ambivalence: the wanting of two contradictory things at the same time. It’s not really a more “complex” will than ours2. It’s just ambivalence.

Now if you remember at the top of this section I said that there were two issues, and one was a concern about power. Here I am going to get back to that. While the above is an explanation of how they justify Limited Atonement with Scripture, it isn’t why Calvinists think Limited Atonement is important. That is the power concern. This has to do with whether or not God can be defeated.

Now for most of us, I don’t see why there is a problem, but I think we need to hear what the Calvinist is thinking here. If God is acting with the intention of accomplish something, and what He wants doesn’t happen, it appears that He has been overpowered. If God is overpowered, than He is not omnipotent. Now, Calvinists don’t frame it this way, but this is the legitimate concern behind their thinking, and I think we need to answer it. So how?

Well, I think the Calvinists are on the right track when it comes to the notion of a complex desire, but I don’t think ambivalence is the correct kind of complexity. A better way to think about it is a contextualized desire. This is when you want something, but you want it in a certain way and under certain conditions.

So, for instance, Lebron James may want to put the basketball through the hoop. However, he doesn’t use his full range of power to try to achieve this goal. He doesn’t punch the other players, knock the hoop down to reach it better, or get a ladder, or anything else like this which is clearly within his physical abilities. Rather he chooses to try and put the ball in the hoop under certain constraints. Why? Because he isn’t just interested in putting the ball through the hoop. He is interested in playing a basketball game and “putting a ball in the hoop” falls into the context of that game, but with certain parameters.

Now the above analogy isn’t really designed to explain what is going on with the atonement, since someone stuffing James’s shot would be him being defeated.”3 The analogy is simply designed to explain what is meant by a contextualized desire in a causal manner. The way that Arminians actually understand this is much more, well, social.

The key here is love. God doesn’t simply want to save us. He wants us to love Him. Here I’m going to used a tired Arminian analogy, but it is tired for a reason. This is the fact that when you fall in love with someone, you don’t really want to force that person to love you back. You want them to love you back on their own. Even if you had access to some kind of pill that could make them believe that they loved you, it wouldn’t be true love. If God desires us to truly love Him as He loves us, it makes sense that He doesn’t simply want to save all, but to save those who return His love. And someone refusing to love Him isn’t Him being defeated; it is simply them choosing their own way. As Paul says in Romans 1, God gives them over to their desires, even though they are destructive.
So defeat isn’t the right way of looking at it. It is that God wants to save within a particular context which includes free will. This makes it a contextualized desire.

Unlimited Atonement

Being socially centered, Arminians are more focused on personal attributes, and one of those is God’s character. God’s character is consistently good. When it comes to the atonement, as I said before, the difference here isn’t really on the nature of the atonement. Rather the difference is God’s intention and His honesty. For the Arminian, principle concern is the authenticity of God’s offer of salvation. Limited Atonement seems to make God a liar.

Often the Calvinist would counter that they don’t know who the elect are, so therefore it isn’t inauthentic. Well, it is true that it doesn’t make them a liar. But it would make God a liar when Scripture says things like “We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men and especially of those who believe” or “So by the grace of God He might taste death for each one” or “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”… etc. These texts are not contextualized with His will to display justice or whatever purpose the Calvinist proposes He has for allowing some to be damned.

When it is contextualized, it is contextualized with the condition of faith, not God’s greater desire. We would expect it to be contextualized by God’s greater desire if these are examples of ambivolence. For instance, let’s say I really want to eat some pizza. However, I also really want to lose weight. So I have to decide which is more important. Afterwards, if I were to express regret at not eating the pizza, I’ll say, “Oh, I really wish I had that pizza. But I’m glad I won’t have the extra calories.” It is the other option that qualified the choice.

This is what we would expect in the text if these expressions were out of ambivalence. But we don’t receive this. Rather we receive an open invitation to any who would believe. If Calvinism were true, this just strikes us as deceptive. Now God has the sovereign right to be deceptive if He wants, but it wouldn’t be good of Him. It seems clear to us that God truly does want to save every single person, and He acts towards the salvation of all, even those who ultimately are damned. Now, this means that He must be acting in a way that allows them the ability to resist Him, for He is powerful enough to cause them to comply if need be. But their damnation is on their own shoulders, not God’s.

Unfortunately, I don’t know too well how a Calvinist would really respond to this. I usually get an answer back in the fashion of “who are you oh man to challenge God” or “that is a man-centered concern”, so I cant really show how Calvinists would approach this from a causal-centered direction. Rather, it seems to me that Calvinists have trouble recognizing that there is a problem. This doesn’t show causal-centeredness, but it does show that we think about things very differently.

1 One is to quibble on the meaning of terms like ‘world’ and ‘all’. Another is to take Calvin’s route, and not understand these terms literally, but rather as God accommodating to our language and limited understanding. I find these mostly to be hermeneutical tricks and rather unconvincing, and they don’t really show the causal-centeredness of Calvinist thought anyway.
2Now I do think that God’s will is different than ours. God is eternal and doesn’t deliberate like we do. Likewise, He is taking more into account for His choices than we do. I just don’t think that this two-will theory constitutes a difference.
3Mutumbo’s smiling right now.