Dr. Allen and the Atonement

Recently Dr. David Allen of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary posted an article in response to Erik Raymond on the subject of the atonement. I will be very clear and honest: I find Dr. Allen’s writings (and talks) on this topic to be, at best, obtuse—extremely unclear and lacking in depth. Despite the huge number of pages he has put in print over the past decade on this topic, I am surely not alone in concluding that the good professor has yet to engage the other side in any meaningful fashion and, when challenged, he refuses to actually provide meaningful give and take. Here is one of the key texts from his article:

First, lurking behind his answer is his assumption of the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of unconditional election. I merely point this out to show how often Calvinists assume their system in arguing for debated issues such as the extent of the atonement. I, along with most non-Calvinists, would understand biblical election differently. Setting aside for the moment the debate over the nature of election (unconditional, conditional, corporate, etc.), interestingly no atonement text in Scripture states that Christ died only for the “elect.” There is no atonement text in Scripture stating that God intends to save only the elect. There is no atonement text in Scripture stating that God wills only the salvation of the elect. Those texts that do speak in any way to the intention of the atonement as a sacrifice for sins never limit the recipients in terms of God’s intent to save or in terms of the extent of the atonement. This is a very important point.

Of course, one cannot simply “set aside” the nature of election when discussing the atonement, and that is part and parcel of the problem with Allen’s statements in this area. But it was this section that made it into Twitter, and many of us, myself include, responded by pointing to the key soteriological text in Romans 8:31-34. Dr. Allen has posted another article in which he touches upon this response:

The hue and cry over this statement in the article and in the tweet is a misreading of what I wrote, coupled with a misinterpretation of Rom 8:31-39.

Notice I did not say that atonement and election are not related, or the Bible doesn’t teach election. As I said in the article, there is no text period that teaches Jesus died only for the sins of the elect. I also claim that there is no atonement text in Scripture that limits God’s intention to save only the elect.

Romans 8 is not a text whose focus is atonement, but let’s grant for the sake of argument that it is since Romans 8:32 states: “He who did not spare his own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” Paul is addressing believers and their current status as having been justified because they have believed in Christ.

To suggest this text teaches limited atonement is faulty logic.

All those “died for” receive all things.
Some do not receive all things;
Therefore, they are not died for.

Here is the fallacy: the first “us” in Rom 8:32 is being converted into “all for whom Christ died,” when contextually the “us” refers to believers, not all for whom Christ died.

Those who cite Romans 8 as supporting limited atonement are equivocating on the meaning of the word “us” in v. 32 and “elect” in v. 33. There is no place in Scripture where “elect” refers to the abstract class of all the elect qua elect (unborn elect, unbelieving elect, believing elect, glorified elect). Every time the word “elect” occurs in Scripture, it refers only to believers. There are no exceptions. (As an aside, the same is true of the use of “his people” in Scripture. Never is the term used for the abstract class of the elect, as most Calvinists use it. “His people” is usually a reference to the nation of Israel, as in Matt 1:21.)

Reformed systematic theology speaks of “the elect” as the abstract class of all the elect; Scripture never does. Therefore, it is begging the question when one takes the two uses of “us” in Rom 8:32 and “elect” in Rom 8:33 as meaning the abstract class of all the elect qua elect. It is only believers that Paul is speaking to and about. Paul is giving special assurance to those in a believing state.

Think of it this way—Has God resolved to save anyone other than believers? No. Are there atonement texts that say God intends only to save believers? Yes! John 3:16 is a prime example. If we use the word “elect” as equivalent to “believers” as Scripture does, then there are atonement texts that say God intends only to save the elect, since it turns out in the end that the elect constitute all believers.

In Scripture, universal terms are always used when atonement texts speak of the atonement and its extent. Limited terms are always used when a text speaks of election, because these texts always refer to existing believers only.

There are so many problems with this kind of argumentation it is hard to know where to begin! Allen is so wedded to a synergistic system he cannot step away from it to see how deeply committed to it he really is. He can complain that the Calvinist has a system (and we do!), but does not examine his own on the same basis or level. In any case, we will be looking closely at this attempted response on the Dividing Line next week. For now, I am posting this material not only so that everyone will have the background for that discussion on the DL, but because he also responded to our invitation to debate this text publicly by, once again, turning down the challenge:

To those seeking a formal debate on this issue, my response is there is no need to do so. I have published more than 1,200 pages on this subject (here’s my latest, The Atonement), including arguments by Calvinists since the Reformation against limited atonement. I have often said that most of the best arguments against limited atonement are made by Calvinists themselves who reject it, and their number is legion in the past and today. John Owen’s Double Payment argument and Triple Choice argument have been refuted and debunked a hundred times over by Calvinists. I have cited the sources and explained the arguments. I would love to see Calvinists who affirm limited atonement engage what I and others have written on this subject.

I have heard this excuse before: Dave Hunt used it to avoid debating this topic as well. We will allow the reader to decide if Dr. Allen’s reasoning is sound. But I am once again very desirous of finding a location close to the SWBTS campus where we can do a Bible-based seminar on the atonement. The students there deserve to hear the other side, even if Dr. Allen will not defend his teachings in moderated, public debate.

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