This post is an excerpt from the book review of Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
Systematic Theology is like connect-the-dots. One takes biblical data points and draws relationships between them to form a complete picture. This process helps people understand scripture, because they see the big picture.
The more biblical data points one has, the higher degree of certainty they can have regarding the accuracy of their picture. Conversely, the less biblical data points, the less certain they can be regarding their picture.
The challenge for systematic theology is that at times the data points are less than clear and could be seen many different ways. This can lead to drastically different pictures. It’s the role of the exegete (not the systematic theologian) to clarify the data points, and the role of the systematic theologian to draw the lines and clarify the big picture.
But exegesis is hard and people make mistakes. The processes of 1) determining which aspects of a context are most relevant and also 2) how to apply an author’s theme to understanding a specific statement are difficult. This difficulty should never push us into the error of using our systematic theology to force an interpretation on a passage. Because of this difficulty, we must never elevate our interpretation of scripture to the level of scripture.
Thankfully, not all aspects of scripture are open for interpretation. The early reformers claimed that the scriptures are perspicuous (clear) in relation to salvation. Statements like: “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” are clear. We either believe them or we don’t. However, not all aspects of the atonement are this clear. Thus systematic theologians come up with “atonement theories” to explain the atonement.
It seems that Owen’s atonement theory led him to make categorical mistakes when interpreting scripture. Instead of using passages that teach Christ died for all to develop his systematic theology, his systematic theology led him to complex and mistaken interpretations of those passages. We have already examined this principle in action, when we looked at Owen’s view of intercession. It was as if Owen was connecting the dots and found a left over dot out of place. He had to move it over so it completed his picture.
But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I presented a rough sketch of the atonement in the post I can only imagine. Owen finds two data points that he sees inconsistent with a picture of the atonement in which Christ died for all, namely: the concepts of sin-bearing and also the satisfaction of justice.
Owen’s arguments go beyond the arguments he made against unlimited atonement. He’s going after the whole system. In the next two posts I hope to 1) add additional definition to my view of the atonement 2) defend that view from Owen’s arguments and 3) highlight some of Owen’s additional problems with his atonement theory, by going over the topics of the sin-bearer as well as the satisfaction of justice.