Because Nothing Says ‘Happy New Year’ Like Particular Redemption

In John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ the English Puritan unfurls a dizzying number of arguments against universal redemption (the Arminian teaching that Christ died for the sins of all persons and every person without exception, not to be confused with ‘universalism’ in current parlance) and for particular redemption.  One of the arguments he includes is one that perhaps most theology students encounter fairly early in the study of Christian doctrine: Christ is said in Scripture to die specifically for his own people (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:14).  This argument can then be easily brushed aside when one observes that these texts do not explicitly say that Christ died for his own people only.  However, Owen fills out the argument in such a way that makes things a bit more complicated for the Arminian respondent.  He notes that throughout Scripture believers in Christ, the company of the saved, and unbelievers, alienated from God and from salvation in Christ, are clearly distinguished from one another.  An obvious example is supplied by the parable of the sheep and the goats:

Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:32-34, 41).

Owen then says that, if there is a clear distinction between those who are in Christ and those who are not (and never will be), and if Christ is said to die for the sins of the former but never for the sins of the latter, then this is an indication that Christ’s sacrificial death is intended just for those who will come to faith in him.  In this case, the Arminian doctrine of universal redemption is adrift from exegesis and stuck in the realm of speculation.  At this point, the Arminian exegete might argue that Scripture does teach that Christ’s death is intended to atone for the sins of the reprobate in loci like John 3:16.  However, in Owen’s judgment, John 3:16 and similar texts do not in fact indicate that Christ died for every human being without exception.  For Owen, then, these texts are to be interpreted with the aid of the above line of reasoning in which the two camps are distinguished and Christ is said to die for the one without any indication that he dies specifically for the other.  Interestingly, he also adds that, even if Scripture doesn’t explicitly use the word ‘only’ in directing the intention of Christ’s death toward the elect, Scripture often omits the ‘restrictive term’ where it is clearly implied (10:245).  For example, in John 14:6 Christ does not say ‘I am the only way and the only truth and the only life’ in order to drive home his own uniqueness as the divine Son and Savior.  Also, in Colossians 1:19 Paul can write that ‘in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ without having to say ‘only in [Christ]’ in order to confirm to us that we ought not to look elsewhere for the fullness of God revealed to us.

What do you make of this exegetical argument for particular redemption (or, in less felicitous terminology, limited atonement)?


8 thoughts on “Because Nothing Says ‘Happy New Year’ Like Particular Redemption

  1. My first red flag is raised at the skipping of Mt 25:35-40, the verses that contain the logic of separation in the parable. It isn’t the believers and unbelievers who are separated; all believe here. The just and the unjust are clearly distinguished from one another — categories based on actions. There is no qualification of `amim and goyim here, believers and unbelievers. Both sides appear to belong to the “company of the saved” in the parable — to human eyes. Which fits; Matthew is quite explicit about a) making divisions among the people of God, and b) extending the grace of God outward to gentiles who act as faithful recognizers of God.

    So to say of the sheep in this parable that they were elected as sheep from the foundation of the world is a misreading — the reward and punishment are eternal, but the judgment is temporal, based on ethical behavior of individuals. Judgment is not predetermined, nor has it anything to do with who we are.

    And the eucharistic meal, also in Matthew, prefigures the crucifixion as a “covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” That peri pollwn certainly is not peri pantwn, but it is by no means a restrictive term! If we are permitted to be exclusive, it is with respect to the God who acts in Christ, and no other. It is not with respect to limiting the scope of God’s actions! We may say solus Christus without ever having the hubris to say soli nos.

    Besides which, scripture has no concept of universal humanity as a whole — only of “people” as a human genus. Only really of peoples, of us and them. But the scope is therefore limited by motion and direction. And even in Matthew, who is restrictive even among those who consider themselves “elect,” the motion is outward from “us” toward others. In Paul it is emphatically this, toward as much of the world as he can reach. This is basic Judean eschatology — in the end we exist as a chosen and created people for the sake of all others. Salvation, reconciliation and redemption are inclusive; they go forth from the chosen people and draw others by grace toward God as we have been drawn to God. If they did not, we gentiles would have no business talking about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as our God in the first place.

    So: if particular redemption, then tending as its limit asymptotically outward to infinity. I find it missionally absurd to say otherwise, to develop classes of the absolutely not redeemed, for whom Christ is not sufficient. Will God send another for them? If Christ is not sufficient, he is certainly not necessary — not even for us.

  2. Matt,

    Thanks for your reply. Let me offer a few thoughts in response. First, the verses from Matt. 25 that are omitted here don’t overturn the basic point that in Scripture there is a distinction between those who truly are of the elect and of the people of God and those who are not (even if it may be difficult for us in our limited knowledge to determine whether specific persons are ‘in’ or ‘out’).

    I’m not sure I can make sense of your second paragraph or how it is related to the present discussion. I’m thinking your main point is that the judgment concerns the deeds of human persons, but, assuming for the sake of argument that that’s true, I still can’t see how this is opposed to divine foreordination. Further, I’m not sure it’s possible to say even in Matthew (let alone the whole canon of Scripture) that the judgment concerns only our deeds and not who we are in relation to Christ.

    Christ’s blood being poured out ‘for many’ is not supposed by Owen to be restrictive. It is simply supposed to be a fairly imprecise statement, while other texts have the restrictive import. Further, to say that God elects a particular people does not entail or necessarily give rise to hubris among that people, especially when one considers the gracious nature of election.

    Certainly the mission of the people of God is to proclaim the good news to others who need to hear it, but the discussion here is already inclusive of those who will come to faith in Christ. The discussion is meant to distinguish all the elect (Jew and Gentile, people who presently believe in Christ and people who will in the future) from those who are not elect and then to claim that Christ’s death is for the former only.

    Christ’s atonement is regarded in classic Reformed theology as sufficient to cover the sins of the reprobate but not efficient in covering them. The point is not that God will then save another for the reprobate as if Christ were not the only Savior in whom we must trust.

  3. This seems a rather (intentionally) silly question, but, of course, ‘God’ or the Trinity may be called ‘Savior’ and yet, as elaborated in the doctrine of the triune appropriations, certain things can be peculiarly ascribed to one person of the Trinity (in this case the Son) even though the outward works of God are not divided among the persons.

    On a related note, if this is a question about whether a person can believe generically in ‘God’ without calling on the name of Christ, that takes us into questions about soteriological inclusivism, etc.

  4. @Steve, thanks for responding in such detail. Let me try to be more clear, at the expense of greater length.

    Judgment in the parable, as much as in the rest of Matthew, does concern the deeds of people. And the response of recognizing God in Christ is the key one for the Matthean community. “Divine foreordination” taken to its logical extent makes of this exactly what the extremes of the Reformed tradition have done with it, and exactly what the Catholics have always denied of God: that it does not matter what we do because it has been determined in advance that we will or will not do it — that the universe unfolds precisely as it does under God’s minute direction, and so that “the elect” may be spoken of with certainty. And the reprobate may likewise — as those God has chosen not to redeem, and never shall.

    But throughout the gospel of Matthew (to argue the consistent argument of one text, rather than picking and choosing — because I can have a very different discussion with you out of John, or the Apocalypse, or Mark, or any of Paul’s letters, etc, each by their own theology) it is the human response to God that is judged. Most specifically, the human response to Christ. Allow me to be sure from my own research, or argue with me out of the text — your doubt isn’t proof. Who we are in relation to Christ is who we choose to be by our actions, and Matthew defends his community against others around him as those who have chosen rightly.

    And you are correct — “to say that God elects a particular people does not entail or necessarily give rise to hubris among that people, especially when one considers the gracious nature of election.” But grace is never a possession, never a certainty that we have, and only ever a gift in relationship. When the redeemed slave of the master goes about boasting that he has been chosen, and boasting against others as though God had chosen and redeemed him alone, and chooses no others — this is hubris. When the redeemed slave of the master chooses to speak of others as those the master will never redeem — this is hubris. For every text of scripture in which the redeemed people of God have said such a thing, we find texts in which God claims otherwise. The prophets always belong to the latter camp. You are redeemed — this does not make you just. And redemption will not save you from God’s judgment on your justice, and God’s condemnation for your injustice, and God’s punishment. But the voice of the prophets always also speaks of God’s justice shown in forgiveness of failure and relenting from punishment. In new redemption, in more inclusive redemption. In choosing others who had not been chosen, and in never failing the objects of His choice. And God’s goodwill remains with the people whether they choose hubris or not — but hubris is punished. We are permitted to say that we have been redeemed by God’s choice, and to be thankful for this fact — but as Paul reminds the Romans, we have no just cause to boast against anyone else. Only to boast in Christ because of God’s choice for us. We have ground to speak with certainty of election — hubris comes when we attempt to speak with certainty of reprobation. The same hubris that belongs to Romans 1:18-32.

  5. I am aware of the classic Reformed arguments about double predestination and the failure of the efficacy of Christ along presupposed lines of divine choice. This has always been an answer to theodicy — and one that presupposes that evil in the world has an existence, that in choosing against it God chooses against creatures as evil. That some creatures God chooses to make good, and some God chooses to leave. I know very well that this discussion is meant to reinforce a distinction in the world, that some are elect and some reprobate, and to say that the action of God in Christ is only effective for the former and not the latter. And among the Reformed, it inevitably turns to a discussion of whether human choice, human action, plays a role in one’s status as elect or reprobate. And so we will grant this or that result of God’s action in Christ universally — but not the crucial one. Not whatever one we claim at present is actually involved in making the creature right before God in an ultimate sense. Salvation, justification, redemption, atonement, the list goes on.

    I get the point, believe me — and I refuse to follow that line. Whatever they may have thought about sin, the Fathers were under no such impression about Christ — that the redemption of humanity could be subdivided. “What is not assumed is not redeemed” — and Christ redeems humanity because in him God has taken up humanity. Has God only taken up just humanity? And not unjust humanity? Is that an ontological distinction you really want to import into Christology?

    Owen’s line insists on subordinating the generosity of scripture to the miserliness of scripture, just as you show he does with Jn 3:16. On subordinating the generosity of God’s just grace to the miserliness of our self-assertion, and confusing that with God’s judgment — which the elect receive more often than any other in scripture, at the hands of those God has elected for another purpose. The mistake is always in asserting that those outside are reprobate — that they are outside because God chose against them. And the consistent line of Judean eschatology in scripture is that God chooses judgment against the unjust, those who oppress the people of God — but in the end God will draw the whole world to the mount of the Lord, and creation will be restored. That the unjust will be punished, and the just rewarded, certainly — but at the same time, that all the world will be redeemed to God. Judgment and generosity, God’s prerogatives, both. Paul refuses to let us reserve the generosity for ourselves, and the judgment for others, and he’s right! Christ maps a space apart from judgment according to deeds, CWRIS NOMOU, a space in which God has made a choice that we may not restrict.

  6. Steven and Matt:

    Good discussion. Here’s some historical context.

    Historically, the matter of the “name” by which we know God, became an important matter, and one regarding inclusivity. It was especially important in the historical conflict between Judaism – and its “God” – versus Christianity; and “Christ.” The and controversy was that Jews of course, did not acknowledge Christ per se. So that many Christians thought that therefore, Jews could not be saved. (And vice-versa: Jews thought that Christians, acknowledging “Christ,” mispresesented God.)

    So what’s in a name? The exact name by which we know God, actually, becomes rather important, early on, in the minds of many. For that matter, to assume a simple trinitarian identity, between three names for God? Is to simply assume a matter whose contention was a major element in historical Christianity.

    The name by which we call God was an important matter in the Bible. Especially when “Christianity” named itself after specifically, “Christ.” So that Christianity began to become a separate religion, in many minds, from Judaism – and possibly even its “God.” So how finally is that apparent conflict resolved? What does the New Testament say? The NT could not quite deny salvation by “God” of course. While perhaps it even wanted, inclusively, to leave salvation open to the Jews as well.

    There would have been two parties even then – as there are today. Religious conservatives wanted exclusivity: conservative Jews, and convinced Christians, each wanted to say that only their own religion, their own idea and name for God, was right. But there were others in Christianity say, who did not feel they could cut Christianity off so firmly from Judaism, as to deny “God” and go just with “Christ.” And so, faced with this conflict between two different views? The BIble resorted to equivocation. To very complex language, that allowed two voices, two possibilities.

    Consider even for example, the line that, regarding Jesus, seems extremely exclusivistic: “there is no other name under heaven” by which we might be saved. This seems quite exclusivistic. However? Note the qualifier or caveat: no other name “under heaven.” This may have intended to be significant. Jesus in his human life, on earth, might have been seen as “under” heaven. But God in contrast? “Fills all things.” God is not only “in” but also even “above all heavens.”

    So that? The major early controversy regarding inclusivity, was the status of Christ himself. And of Judaism vs. Christianity: the question was in part, could Jews be included among the saved. Even without acknowledging the name of Jesus. This was hard for Christians to swallow. And yet nothing clear could be said against it, without seeming to disavow the Old Testament.

    And so? To solve this early conflict, regarding exclusivity versus inclusivity? The Bible presented an ambiguous phrase. With at least two readings. One that would 1) seem to suggest that only Christians, who acknowledge Jesus, can be saved. But at the same time, it offered 2) the other, more generous reading. Included the Jewish people, it seems. There was another “name” by which one might be saved, than Jesus. Above those “under heaven.” Was the One in Heaven itself (and “above all heavens”); God himself.

    The Bible in fact continued, to be far less restrictive, more inclusive, than many have thought. Though to be sure, with its polysemic equivocation, it attempted it seems, to be open to both possibilities, both readings.

    In any case though? Both inclusivists and exclusivists, can quote the very same lines. The Bible itself remained open to both. Though if anything? That would have the Bible itself being finally – inclusivist?

  7. Clarification? More simply put, the first problem in early Christianity was this: Jews believe in God, but not Christ. So are they saved? Even without Christ? At times, Christianity seemed to say that only Christ can save us. So Jews would not be saved.

    Yet in the earliest days of Christianity, to say that the Jews were not saved, would be to very militantly and prominently separate Christianity from Judaism. Which was not theologically or politically feasible at the time. Since Christianity claimed to be identicial, or quite continuous, with Judaism.

    So how did the Bible handle this problem? I suggest that the Bible and/or early Christian leadership, gave us ambiguous phrases, that could be read either of two ways. As allowing either 1) salvation only through Christ. Or as 2) allowing salavation also, thru even God alone. God as conceived, as he is in Jewish religion, without Christ.

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