The John 3:16 Conference- David Allen on Limited Atonement (Part 1)

November 10, 2008

The third point of Calvinism argued against, Limited Atonement, was handled by Dr. David Allen, the Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I will tell you upfront, this was my least favorite of all the presenters. I will do my best to present his argument fairly, though to be honest my gut reaction to this message was that it was 55 minutes of arrogance and non sequiturs, with 5 minutes of poor exegesis. This is not intended to be an evaluation of the man per se, but an evaluation of his argument, which I found cliche and flimsy at best. That said, let’s take a look at it.

To start with, Dr. Allen was the only conference presenter who afforded the audience a handout of his notes to reference for pertinent definitions and various charts. Once taking the stage, Dr. Allen began with the question, What two things do these men have in common: Calvin, Bullinger, Zwingli, Latimer, Amyraut, Baxter, Polhill, Vines, Edwards, Charles Hodge, Ryle, etc.? This he left open for a while, though the answer was apparent from his notes.

The next thing he did was to run through various questions on the atonement. He asked, What is the intent of the atonement? What is the extent of the atonement? When is the application of the atonement? For who is the atonement sufficient? None of these questions did he answer necessarily, but he did state that the debate on limited atonement comes at the point of asking “For who is the atonement sufficient?” Following this he answered his initial question, stating that all the men he named were both Calvinists and were men who denied that the atonement was/is limited.

It was at this point where Dr. Allen spent approximately 30 to 40 minutes reading from the various men named as well as from the minutes of the Synod of Dort and the notes of the Westminster Divines, all to provide confirmation that these men did indeed deny the limitedness of the atonement. Dr. Allen was particularly emphatic in trying to point out that Edwards denied limited atonement (which I will address later). Dr. Allen’s argument for why so many modern Calvinists were unaware that a great number of historic Calvinists were actually four pointers is because all the young Calvinists read are popular contemporary books by five pointers, whereas he himself has read all of the old works and has the largest library of Puritan literature at Southwestern (this sounds snarky, but honestly this is not a misrepresentation of his words).

Finally, at about the 45 or 50 minute mark Dr. Allen stated that we would do some exegesis. He argued that there are three types of texts that affirm unlimited atonement: ‘All’ texts, ‘World’ texts, and ‘Many’ texts. He then stated that the verses saying “Christ died for his sheep” (John 10.11, 15) or “Christ died for the church” (Ephesians 5.25) did not necessarily preclude the universality of the atonement. Then, after another quote, this time from John Owen, he stated that any teaching that says God doesn’t love or doesn’t intend to save the whole world is unbiblical and should be rejected. From here he addressed the criticism that the free offer of the Gospel does not require us to tell people Christ died for you. To refute this he cited 1 Corinthians 15.1-5 and Acts 3.26.

Allen closed with reasons why this is important to get right, stating that limited atonement undermines God’s salvific will, undermines evangelistic zeal, removes the ability to tell a sinner Christ died for them, affects the way a preacher may speak to his congregation, and attacks the idea of giving evangelistic invitations. His final remark was that, “Should the Southern Baptist Convention move toward 5-point Calvinism, such a move would be away from, and not toward, the gospel.”

Alright then, to begin my critique of Dr. Allen, the first thing I would like to say is that, though he seemed convinced that the quotes of dead men who (possibly) denied limited atonement was an argument against limited atonement itself, this journey through old quotes only really served to shake ones faith in labels, not the sufficiency of the atonement. From the build up he had received from others around me I honestly expected more looking at the texts and less self-promotion of his own reading habits in this talk.

That said, I would like to take up one of the men that Dr. Allen smirkingly claimed was only a four pointer, that being the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards. Dr. Allen issued the following quote from Edwards work Of the Freedom of the Will as his only support for this claim:

“From these things it will inevitably follow, that however Christ in some sense may be said to die for all, and to redeem all visible Christians, yea, the whole world, by his death; yet there must be something particular in the design of his death, with respect to such as he intended should actually be saved thereby.”

Now, to begin with, I am not quite sure how Dr. Allen got that Edwards denies limited atonement from this passage. Yes, Edwards does say that there is some sense in which Christ died “to redeem . . . the whole world by his death,” but look after that. Edwards states that “there must be something particular in the design of his death, with respect to [those] as he intended should actually be saved thereby.” What does he mean by this? Well, this is not left up for us to decide, as Edwards himself clarifies if you choose to read further:

“As appears by what has been now shown, God has the actual salvation or redemption of a certain number in his proper absolute design, and of a certain number only; and therefore such a design only can be prosecuted in any thing God does, in order to the salvation of men. God pursues a proper design of the salvation of the elect in giving Christ to die, and prosecutes such a design with respect to no other, most strictly speaking; for it is impossible, that God should prosecute any other design than only such as he has: he certainly does not, in the highest propriety and strictness of speech, pursue a design that he has not. And, indeed, such a particularity and limitation of redemption will as infallibly follow, from the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge, as from that of the decree. For it is as impossible, in strictness of speech, that God should prosecute a design, or aim at a thing, which he at the same time most perfectly knows will not be accomplished, as that he should use endeavours for that which is beside his decree.

So, no matter how many books one has or has not read, when Edwards says that “a particularity and limitation of redemption will as infallibly follow” and “it is impossible . . . that God should prosecute a design . . . which he at the same time most perfectly knows will not be accomplished,” the only possible explanation is that he holds to a limited view of the atonement. How this could ever be construed as a denial of limited atonement instead of a loudly declared affirmation of it is certainly beyond me.

Due to the amount of material left to cover from this message I think we will stop here for today and I will conclude my response to Dr. Allen’s argument in tomorrow’s post.