Having just characterized the two books For Calvinism and Against Calvinism as helpful introductions to the divergent perspectives on the doctrines of grace, I’ll add a caveat: one possible weakness in these volumes is that Horton is given more space for positive articulation and less for polemical jabs at Arminianism while Olson is given more space for polemical jabs and less for constructive exposition.
Perhaps, then, one more attempt to identify a problem in Olson’s case for Arminianism is permissible, this time with respect to the doctrine of the atonement. Olson naturally opposes the notion of particular redemption and then argues that general redemption or ‘unlimited atonement’ is compatible with the penal, substitutionary dimension of Christ’s death. He offers an illustration:
Just one day after his inauguration, President Jimmy Carter…guaranteed a full pardon for all who resisted the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing from the US into Canada or other countries. The moment he signed the executive order, every single draft exile was free to come home with the legal guarantee that he would not be prosecuted….Even though there was a blanket amnesty and pardon, however, many draft exiles chose to stay in Canada or other countries to which they fled. Some died without ever availing themselves of the opportunity to be home with family and friends again. The costly pardon did them no good because it had to be subjectively appropriated in order to be objectively enjoyed. Put another way, although the pardon was objectively theirs, in order to benefit from it they had to subjectively accept it. Many did not (Against Calvinism, p. 149).
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).
There will be more “Reactions” posts, as you might have noticed, because I am co-teaching an adult Sunday school class on the Bible and Art. Each week we are taking on a passage in scripture and looking at a particular work as an interpretation of that scene. Last week we did Salvador Dali’s famous masterpiece, Christ of Saint John of the Cross. What are your thoughts?
Having given a summary of Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (InterVarsity Press, 2009), I’ll offer some reflections and another invitation to more interaction on a few of its themes and lines of argument.
On the whole, I think the book could serve as a reasonable introduction to the mosaic of biblical teaching on the atonement. At the same time, I felt that, given the measure of specificity granted to the volumes of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, it would have been good in some places to slow down and go for depth over breadth. For example, chapter eight broaches a dizzying number of dimensions of the Christian life but could have concentrated on those more closely tied to living in light of the cross.
Released in 2009 as an addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series from InterVarsity Press, Graham Cole’s God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom bears the characteristic marks of that series: attentiveness to pertinent biblical texts, concern for theological articulation, awareness of contemporary debates, and sensitivity to the dynamics of Christian discipleship. Each volume of the series unpacks a particular scriptural theme and, says Cole, this one centers on atonement both broadly conceived as ‘all of God’s saving work throughout time and eternity’ and more narrowly conceived in terms of its ‘central component’, the cross (p. 24).
The first chapter frames the atonement with a consideration of the divine attributes, especially righteousness, holiness, and love. The first and second of these precipitate the need for the atonement while the third precipitates the provision of the atonement. All three are revealed on the cross and among them there is no conceptual conflict, even if we experience a ‘psychological strife’ in reconciling divine wrath and mercy, which are contingent expressions of holiness and love, respectively (p. 51).