An Ex-Calvinist’s Tiptoe Through TULIP – Limited Atonement
The Calvinist teaching of Limited Atonement is an understanding based upon a penal substitutionary model of Christ’s accomplishing salvation on the cross. That is, salvation is understood to consist in Christ receiving God the Father’s wrath and punishment on the cross in the place of mankind, which results in a legal acquittal in the sight of the Father of people who accept this substitutionary gift. However, since not everyone will accept this gift and be saved, there is no need for Christ to be punished for those people God knows will be condemned forever, and therefore Christ’s atoning death was only sufficient for the elect. The atoning punishment of Christ is limited in that He was not actually punished enough to save everyone, only those who are predestined to be vessels of mercy rather than wrath.
THE WHIPPING BOY
Prior to the Middle Ages, and for two millennia in the Eastern Church, the death and resurrection of Christ was never articulated in these ways, and the theological models of what Christ accomplished were understood from a very different frame of mind. I believe that the question among Protestants of whether Limited Atonement is the case becomes irrelevant when the salvific accomplishment of Christ’s death and resurrection is viewed through a proper paradigm, which I would like to contemplate in this article.
Over time Western scholasticism enthusiastically emphasized the understanding of God as static, an Unmoved Mover, immutable, and so forth, and these connotations carry over in Calvinist Evangelical circles in how they approach God the Father. In summary, the “Just Judge” essentially exhausts God the Father’s description. The Father is essentially preoccupied in the preservation of justice, order, and His own immutable character that is compelled to punish sin and not tolerate wickedness. In this model Christ is our advocate who becomes intercessor to divert this Divine wrath and shield the elect from eternal damnation. I believe a lot of this mindset is due to the difficulty of reading the strict rigidity of the God of the Old Testament alongside the loving merciful God of the New Testament, which led heretics like Marcion to conclude that these were two separate Gods. But this apparent dichotomy becomes more cohesive when we look at the audience God is addressing. After coming out of pagan surroundings, God’s people initially are given strict rules and guidance without explanation, like a stern parent telling their children to “do this” and “do not do this” or else there will be consequences. By the time Christ comes, however, these children have grown up, and are now ready to receive the reasoning behind the rules and strictness, which all along was for their own wellbeing so that they may become righteous – not because they are afraid of punishment, but because they love their Father and desire to be like Him. A parent [one who is not a sadist] punishes his or her child not because they take pleasure in doing so; rather it is an obligatory gesture in the hope and desire of the child’s development in character and virtue.
This is where the punitive nature of the above description of Christ’s atonement begins to break down, and the Church Fathers recognized this long before the penal model came to the fore in the Reformation. If God is not punishing for punishment’s sake – if He is desiring discipline and correction for humanity, rather than for satisfying a need within Himself to strike down sinners – then how does Christ’s receiving the Father’s punishment save the world? Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century wrote:
“To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? . . . Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things?”1
The “payment” of ransom had to be made to what was enslaving humanity, to the true Enemy, our condition of Death and corruption. That is, Christ redeems the world not by being punished, but because He is righteous. This righteousness and purity is what heals humanity by His joining Himself to it, to the very epitome of the corruption we have fallen into – to death and the grave and alienation from communion with God. The Father has no indignation against the righteous, and according to Proverbs 17:26 it is not good for a righteous man to be punished. If the Calvinist model is concerned primarily with the enactment of retributive justice, then there is no justice here for the innocent to die in the place of the guilty.
WHAT IS THIS “WRATH” OF WHICH YOU [INCESSANTLY] SPEAK?
The “wrath of God” is a favorite phrase of Calvinists and will be heard no less than a dozen times when they are asked to explain the Christian gospel. To be sure, this is a biblical term, but what exactly does it mean, and why is it given so much emphasis? The way the term is explained in Reformed circles seems to me that it takes on an external personality of its own, as if it is a mode of being that God involuntarily lapses into when He sees any kind of imperfection. I picture Bruce, the shark from Disney’s Finding Nemo who goes from lovable to monstrous when He smells fish blood and requires intervention from his friends as he instinctively starts wreaking havoc.
But in Scripture the wrath of God is consistently, if not exclusively kindled against His own people when they forsake His covenant and cease following Him. The nations do not know God, so why would He inflict wrath on them? If He does, it is for the purpose of preserving His people from forsaking Him, and in the case of Nineveh His wrath is averted when they simply repent. In fact, the nations are often the instrument of God’s wrath upon His children. He chastens those He loves [Heb. 12:6], and His wrath is always for the purpose of discipline to bring people to repentance, not because He must have someone on whom to vent His fury when He flies off the handle; nor because His hand is forced by abstract legal decrees to eternally condemn the vast majority of the human race. The final word is mercy, if people will only repent – literally “turn around” or “course correct.”
HE DESCENDED INTO HELL
For early Christianity (especially in Irenaeus’ writings – see Matthew Bryan’s excellent article), the atonement was not merely about Jesus paying for the punishment due a small number of human beings. It was about Christ uniting humanity as a race to the Divine nature within His own person. As we approach Christmas, the importance of this holy day is very much overlooked by modern Christians as merely providing a body to get punished at Easter. But understood properly, the Incarnation as celebrated at Christmas is the climax of our faith, which is then completed and fulfilled at the cross.
Many Calvinist figures today, such as John Piper or Wayne Grudem, are teaching that the traditional line from the Apostle’s Creed, “He descended into Hell,” is false doctrine. This is because, if the cross is about Christ being punished, and Hell is merely the place where the damned go for eternity to get punished, and Christ already got all the punishment He needed to receive on the cross in order to save the elect, then there was therefore no reason for Him to then go to Hell for more punishment. He said “it is finished” before He died.
The problem here is that this is a complete misconstrual of what the descent into Hell is all about. This doctrine is about the comprehensiveness of Christ’s atonement, both for the living and the dead. The term “Hell” has become mistakenly associated with “Gehenna” or the “lake of fire,” when it actually is a later English version of the ancient concept of the realm of the deceased. “Hades” in the Greek, “Sheol” in the Hebrew, and in Ephesians 4:9, the “lower earthly regions” are traditional euphemisms for the general place of the dead, before Christ’s deliverance from death, inviting the departed into the heavenly Kingdom. He preached to those who are dead and led captivity captive [John 5:25; 1 Peter 3:18-20; 1 Peter 4:6; Eph. 4:8], and this is the central point of the whole gospel; Death has had the life sucked out of it by the satisfaction of Christ’s offering Himself to it.
This is traditionally referred to as Christ’s “Harrowing of Hell.” In the ancient Church, at midnight on Pascha [Easter], an icon is placed in the center of the Church – not of an empty cross or even an empty tomb – but of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, (the cover photo of this article), because this most especially captures what Christ accomplished. The ancient hymn that the Orthodox sing throughout the Pascha season declares,
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Thus it is not only Christ’s death, but his birth, life, circumcision, baptism, death, descent into Hades, resurrection, and ascension all taken together that comprises the fullness of the gospel for Ancient Christianity. Death is conquered by being altogether overcome by immortality, by the perfect living out of the image and likeness of God in humanity, by Christ’s joining Himself to the full essence of our condition.
SO SHALL THE SON OF MAN BE LIFTED UP
In the Orthodox Church the liturgies of Chrysostom and Basil are celebrated, which are condensed versions of the liturgy traditionally attributed to James the brother of the Lord. At the consecration of the gifts the priest prays,
“Thine own of thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all, and for all.”
This is done as the priest holds up the bread and the chalice facing the back of the altar area, which is normally painted with an icon of Christ enthroned surrounded by the Cherubim, Seraphim, and the four heavenly creatures. These creatures, with the likeness of a man, a domestic animal, a wild animal, and a bird of the air, symbolize all aspects of the created order. The sacrifice of Christ is clearly not merely about any limited legal exoneration of human souls when they die, but of the restoration, resurrection, and metamorphosis of the entire cosmos.
The word “atonement” simply denotes the idea of “reconciliation” – “at-one-ment.” At the end of the twelve-day Christmas feast the Church calendar commemorates Christ’s baptism, when the Trinity was made manifest to the world. Why did the perfect man need baptism? Clement of Alexandria came to the conclusion that Christ entered the Jordan not to receive sanctification, but instead to Himself sanctify the waters.2 Scientifically we know that every body of water is ultimately connected to every other water source in the world, such that all of the water we currently have on earth is the same water that has always been here in a constant recycling process. By entering the Jordan, Christ in turn came into contact with the water of the entire world, the wellspring and source of life to all creation, where God will one day make His dwelling as the new Jerusalem descends from the heavens. If the atonement is limited in any way at all, not only within humanity, but in that it does not encompass the entire cosmos, then it is no atonement at all.
Christ connected His atoning death to the bronze serpent of Moses that bestowed healing upon the Israelites who had been bitten by the poisonous vipers in the desert.3 The serpents were the means by which the Israelites were perishing, and Christ certainly would not be likened to the serpent; He crushes the serpent’s head. When we see the cross, we do not see Christ’s punishment. We see the instrument of death, and therefore Death itself, being put to death by its own means on display before the world. As Orthodoxy takes a more medicinal model of personal salvation, it is interesting that the serpent on the staff is the symbol of the medical emergency field in America today. Gregory the Theologian went on to say:
“But that brazen serpent was hung up as a remedy for the biting serpents, not as a type of Him that suffered for us, but as a contrast; and it saved those that looked upon it, not because they believed it to live, but because it was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it deserved. And what is the fitting epitaph for it from us? “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” You are overthrown by the Cross; you are slain by Him who is the Giver of life; you are without breath, dead, without motion, even though you keep the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a pole.”4
WHO IS BEING CONVERTED HERE?
In the mind of the Reformed Calvinist, the salvation of man envisages a decision or event in a person’s life that results in a change in God’s disposition towards that person. That person is then regenerated and becomes part of the elect due to this participation in an experience that transferred him or her from one category to another in the mind of God. But historically one’s salvation envisages a lifelong journey involving a metaphysical transformation of that person in their disposition towards God; not vice-versa.
Psalm 79 (80) frequently repeats the refrain,
“Oh Lord God of hosts, convert us, and reveal Your face, and we shall be saved.”
We are saved by the revelation of His face, if we are first converted and changed from our selfishness to receive Him with selfless love. We are saved not from the wrath of the Father that is inflicted on Christ in our place, but from what this Psalm calls the “Assyrian”; the true Enemy to be destroyed, Death. The cross is the complete and total annihilation of Death with no limitation whatsoever, for the Revelation of John is clear that all will participate in Christ’s resurrection from the grave; the only question is whether or not one will embrace and enjoy that “Passover” from carnality and corruption into the Light and Life of the entire cosmos.View Sources
1 Saint Gregory the Theologian, Oration 45, The Second Oration on Easter, XXII.
2 Clement of Alexandria, Some Account of the writings and opinions of Clement of Alexandria. John Kaye. London: J. G. & F. Rivington. 1835. p. 443.
3 Numbers 21; John 3:14
4 Saint Gregory the Theologian, Oration 45, The Second Oration on Easter, XXII.