Archive for the ‘Socinianism’ Category

William Cunningham on Several Views of the Atonement

April 19, 2008

Having posted (and, I trust, refuted) a post from a theological opponent on the atonement, I thought I would post an article from one of my theological allies. In this case, that ally is William Cunningham. In Chapter XXIV, of Cunningham’s Historical Theology (in Volume 2, beginning at page 323 of the 1864 (2d) edition), the following is Section VIII, one of several sections on the Atonement and relevant to the present controversy that has been brewing on the doctrine of the Atonement. The entire work (including this section) is freely available here (link). I believe I can fully endorse the article below, except (perhaps) for the issue of distinguishing between Socianized Arminians and un-Socinianized Arminians. One word used in the article that may not be familiar to many readers, is the word “impetration” (and various forms thereof). According to Webster’s 1828 dictionary, impetration means “The act of obtaining by prayer or petition.” (source)

Sec. VIII. Extent of the Atonement.

We proceed now to the third and last division, namely, the consideration of the peculiar views, in regard to the atonement, of those divines who profess to hold Calvinistic doctrines upon other points, but on this concur with, or approximate to, the views of the Arminians; and this, of course, leads us to examine the subject of the extent of the atonement, a topic which is much discussed among theologians in the present day, and is, on this account, as well as from its own nature and bearings, possessed of much interest and importance.

There are now, and for more than two centuries, that is, since the time of Cameron, a Scotchman, who became Professor of Theology in the Protestant Church of France, there have always been, theologians, and some of them men of well-merited eminence, who have held the Calvinistic doctrines of the entire depravity of human nature, and of God s unconditional election of some men from eternity to everlasting life, but who have also maintained the universality of the atonement, the doctrine that Christ died for all men, and not for those only who are ultimately saved. As some men have agreed with Arminians in holding the universality of the atonement who were Calvinists in all other respects, and as a considerable appearance of Scripture evidence can be produced for the doctrine that Christ died for all men, it has been generally supposed that the doctrine of particular redemption, as it is often called, or of a limited atonement, forms the weak point of the Calvinistic system, that which can with most plausibility be assailed, and can with most difficulty be defended. Now, this impression has some foundation. There is none of the Arminian doctrines, in favor of which so much appearance of Scripture evidence can be adduced, as that of the universality of the atonement ; and if Arminians could really prove that Christ died for the salvation of all men, then the argument which, as I formerly intimated, they commonly deduce from this doctrine, in opposition to the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, could not, taken by itself, be easily answered. It is evident, however, on the other side, that if the Arminian doctrine of the universality of the atonement can be disproved, when tried upon its own direct and proper grounds and evidences, without founding upon its apparent inconsistency with the other doctrines of the Calvinistic system, then not only is one important principle established, which has been held by most Calvinists, that, namely, of a limited atonement, that is, of an atonement limited as to its destination or intended objects, but great additional strength is given to the general body of the evidence in support of Calvinism.

This is the aspect in which the arrangement we have followed leads us to examine it. Looking merely at the advantage of controversial impression, it would not be the most expedient course to enter upon the Arminian controversy, as we are doing, through the discussion of the extent of the atonement, since Arminians can adduce a good deal that is plausible in support of its universality, and found a strong argument against Calvinistic predestination on the assumption of its universality, considerations which would suggest the policy of first establishing some of the other doctrines of Calvinism against the Arminians, and then employing these doctrines, already established, to confirm the direct and proper evidence against a universal, and in favor of a limited, atonement. But since we have been led to consider the subject of an atonement in general, in opposition to the Socinians, we have thought it better to continue, without interruption, the investigation of this subject until we finish it, although it does carry us into the Arminian controversy, at the point where Arminianism seems to be strongest. We have thought it better to do this than to return to the subject of the extent of the atonement, after discussing some of the other doctrines controverted between the Calvinists and the Arminians. And we have had the less hesitation about following out this order, for these reasons: first, because we are not afraid to encounter the Arminian doctrine of a universal atonement, upon the ground of its own direct and proper evidence, without calling in the assistance that might be derived from the previous proof of the other doctrines of Calvinism; secondly, because the examination of the whole subject of the atonement at once enables us to bring out more fully the principle, which we reckon of fundamental importance upon this whole question, namely, that the nature of the atonement settles or determines its extent; and, thirdly, because, if it can be really shown, as we have no doubt it can, that the Scripture view of the nature, and immediate object and effect, of the atonement, disproves its universality, then we have, in this way, what is commonly reckoned the weakest part of the Calvinistic system conclusively established, on its own direct and proper evidence; and established, moreover, by the force of all the arguments which have been generally employed not only by Calvinists, but by the sounder or un-Socinianized Arminians, in disputing with the Socinians on the truth and reality of an atonement.

In proceeding now to advert to the subject of the extent of the atonement, as a distinct, independent topic, we shall first explain the doctrine which has been generally held upon this subject by Calvinists, commonly called the doctrine of particular redemption, or that of a limited or definite atonement; and then, secondly, advert to the differences between the doctrine of universal or unlimited atonement or redemption, as held by Arminians, and as held by those who profess Calvinistic doctrines upon other points.

The question as to the extent of the atonement, is commonly and popularly represented as amounting in substance to this: Whether Christ died for all men, or only for the elect, for those who ultimately believe and are saved? But this state of the question does not bring out the true nature of the point in dispute with sufficient fullness, accuracy, and precision. And, accordingly, we find that neither in the canons of the Synod of Dordt, nor in our Confession of Faith, which are commonly reckoned the most important and authoritative expositions of Calvinism, is there any formal or explicit deliverance given upon the question as stated in this way, and in these terms. Arminians, and other defenders of a universal atonement, are generally partial to this mode of stating it, because it seems most readily and obviously to give to their doctrine the sanction and protection of certain scriptural statements, which look like a direct assertion, but are not, that Christ died for all men; and because there are some ambiguities about the meaning of the expressions, of which they usually avail themselves. I have no doubt that the controversy about the extent of the atonement is substantially decided in our Confession, though no formal deliverance is given upon the precise question, whether Christ died for all men, or only for the elect; and it may tend to bring out clearly the true state of the question, as well as contribute to the subsidiary, but still important, object of assisting to determine what is the doctrine of our Confession upon this subject, if we advert to the statements it contains regarding it, and the manner in which it gives its deliverance upon it. We have already had occasion to quote, incidentally, the principal declarations of the Confession upon this subject, in explaining the peculiar views of the Arminians, with regard to the atonement in general; but it may be proper now to examine them somewhat more fully. They are chiefly the following: “They who are elected being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ; are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” [FN: C. iii., s. vi.]

There are two questions which may be, and, indeed, have been, started with respect to the meaning of these words; attempts having been made to show that they do not contradict or exclude the doctrine of a universal atonement, as it has been sometimes held by Calvinists. The first question is as to the import of the word “redeemed;” and it turns upon this point, Does the word describe merely the impetration or purchase of pardon and reconciliation for men by the death of Christ? or does it comprehend the application as well as the impetration? If it be understood in the first or more limited sense, as descriptive only of the impetration or purchase, then, of course, the statement of the Confession clearly asserts a definite or limited atonement, comprehending as its objects those only who, in fact, receive all other spiritual blessings, and are ultimately saved; whereas, if it included the application as well as the impetration, the statement might consist with the universality of the atonement, as it is not contended, even by Arminians, that, in this wide sense, any are redeemed by Christ, except those who ultimately believe and are saved. Indeed, one of the principal uses to which the Arminians commonly apply the distinction between impetration and application, as they explain it, is this, that they interpret the scriptural statements which seem to speak of all men as comprehended in the objects of Christ’s death, of the impetration of pardon and reconciliation for them; and interpret those passages which seem to indicate some limitation in the objects of His dying, of the application of those blessings to men individually. Now, it seems very manifest that the word “redeemed” is to be taken here in the first, or more limited sense as descriptive only of the impetration or purchase of pardon and reconciliation; because there is a distinct enumeration of all the leading steps in the great process which, originating in God’s eternal, absolute election of some men, terminates in their complete salvation, their redemption by Christ being evidently, from the whole structure of the statement, not comprehensive of, but distinguished from, their vocation and justification, which constitute the application of the blessings of redemption, the benefits which Christ purchased.

The second question to which I referred, applies only to the last clause quoted, namely, “neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.” Here it has been made a question, whether the concluding restriction, to “the elect only,” applies to each of the preceding predicates, “redeemed,” called,” “justified,” etc., singly and separately, or only to the whole of them taken collectively; that is, whether it be intended to be here asserted that not any one of these things, such as “redeemed,” can be predicated of any but the elect only, or merely that the whole of them, taken in conjunction, cannot be predicated of any others. The latter interpretation, namely, that there are none but the elect of whom the whole collectively can be predicated, would make the declaration a mere truism, serving no purpose, and really giving no deliverance upon anything, although the repetition of the general statement about the consequences of election, or the execution of God’s eternal decree, in a negative form, was manifestly intended to be peculiarly emphatic, and to contain a denial of an error reckoned important. The Confession, therefore, must be regarded
as teaching, that it is not true of any but the elect only, that they are redeemed by Christ, any more than it is true that any others are called, justified, or saved. Here I may remark by the way, that though many modern defenders of a universal atonement regard the word redemption as including the application as well as the impetration of pardon and reconciliation, and, in this sense, disclaim the doctrine of universal redemption, yet a different phraseology was commonly used in theological discussions about the period at which the Confession was prepared, and in the seventeenth century generally. Then the defenders of a universal atonement generally maintained, without any hesitation, the doctrine of universal redemption, using the word, of course, to describe only the impetration, and not the application, of spiritual and saving blessings; and this holds true, both of those who admitted, and of those who denied, the Calvinistic doctrine of election. Of the first of these cases (the Calvinists) we have an instance in Richard Baxter’s work, which he entitled,” Universal Redemption of Mankind by the Lord Jesus Christ;” and of the second (the Arminians) in Dr. Isaac Barrow’s sermons, entitled, “The Doctrine of Universal Redemption Asserted and Explained.”

The other leading statements upon this subject is the Confession, are those which we have already had occasion to quote from the eighth chapter, secs. 5, 8 : “The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the Eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him:” and again: “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption” (that is, pardon and reconciliation), “He doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; making intercession for them; and revealing unto them, in and by the word, the mysteries of salvation; effectually persuading them by His Spirit to believe and obey,” etc. Now, this latter statement, as I formerly intimated, contains, and was intended to contain, the true status quaestionis in the controversy about the extent of the atonement. It is to be explained by a reference to the mode of conducting this controversy, between the Calvinists and Arminians, about the time of the Synod of Dordt, and also to the mode of conducting the controversy excited in France by Cameron, [FN: It is a curious circumstance that the followers of Cameron maintained that the Synod of Dort did not condemn their views, because it did not make any statement precisely similar to this of our Confession. Dallaei Apologia pro duabus Synodis, p. 623. ] and afterwards carried on by Amyraldus in France and Holland, and by Baxter in England. The fundamental position of all who had advocated the doctrine of atonement against the Socinians, but had also maintained that it was universal or unlimited, was that Christ, by His sufferings and death, purchased pardon and reconciliation for all men, without distinction or exception; but that these blessings are applied or communicated to, and, of course, are actually enjoyed by, those only who came, from whatever cause, to repent and believe. This, of course, is the only sense in which the doctrine of universal atonement, or redemption, could be held by any who did not believe in the doctrine of universal salvation. And the assertion or denial of this must, from the nature of the case, form the substance of the controversy about the extent of the atonement, whatever diversity of phraseology may be, at different times, employed in discussing it.

The doctrine of a universal atonement necessarily implies, not only that God desired and intended that all men should be benefited by Christ’s death, for this, in some sense, is universally admitted, but that, in its special and peculiar character as an atonement, that is, as a penal infliction, as a ransom price, it should effect something bearing favorably upon their spiritual welfare. This could be only by its purchasing for all men the pardon of their sins and reconciliation with God, which the Scripture plainly represents as the proper and direct results or effects of Christ’s death. The advocates of this doctrine accordingly say, that He impetrated or purchased these blessings for all men; and as many are never actually pardoned and reconciled, they are under the necessity, as I formerly explained, because they hold a universal atonement, both of explaining away pardon and reconciliation as meaning merely the removal of legal obstacles, or the opening up of a door, for God’s bestowing these blessings, and of maintaining that these blessings are impetrated for any to whom they are never applied. Now this, of course, is the position which the statement in the Confession was intended to contradict, by asserting that impetration and application, though distinct, are co-extensive, and are never, in fact, separated, that all for whom these blessings were ever designed or procured, do certainly receive them; or, conversely, that they were not designed, or procured, for any except those who ultimately partake of them. This, then, is the form in which the controversy about the extent of the atonement is stated and decided in our Confession of Faith; and, whatever differences of phraseology may have been introduced into the discussion of this subject in more modern times, it is always useful to recur to this mode of stating the question, as fitted to explain the true nature of the points involved in it, and to suggest clear conceptions of the real import of the different topics adduced upon both sides. Those who are usually represented as holding the doctrine of particular redemption, or limited atonement, as teaching that Christ did not die for all men, but only for the elect, contend for nothing more than this, and cannot be shown to be under any obligation, in point of consistency, to contend for more, namely, that, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased Redemption, He doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same; and all who take the opposite side, and maintain that Christ died for all men, that His atonement was universal or unlimited, can, without difficulty, be proved to maintain, or to be bound in consistency to maintain, if they really admit an atonement at all, and, at the same time, deny universal salvation, that He purchased redemption that is, pardon and reconciliation for many to whom they are never applied, who never are put in possession of them.

We would now make two or three observations, suggested by this account of the state of the question. First, the advocates of a limited or definite atonement do not deny, but maintain, the infinite intrinsic sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction and merits. They regard His sufferings and death as possessed of value, or worth, sufficient to have purchased pardon and reconciliation for the whole race of fallen man. The value or worth of His sacrifice of Himself depends upon, and is measured by, the dignity of His person, and is therefore infinite. Though many fewer of the human race had been to be pardoned and saved, an atonement of infinite value would have been necessary, in order to procure for them these blessings; and though many more, yea, all men, had been to be pardoned and saved, the death of Christ, being an atonement of infinite value, would have been amply sufficient, as the ground or basis of their forgiveness or salvation. We know nothing of the amount or extent of Christ’s sufferings in themselves. Scripture tells us only of their relation to the law, in compliance with the provision of which they were inflicted and endured. This implies their infinity, in respect of intrinsic legal worth or value; and this, again, implies their full intrinsic sufficiency for the redemption of all men, if God had intended to redeem and save them. There have been some Calvinists who have contended that Christ’s sufferings were just as much, in amount or extent, as were sufficient for redeeming, or paying the ransom price of, the elect, of those who are actually saved: so that, if more men had been to be pardoned and saved, Christ must have suffered more than He did, and if fewer, less. But those who have held this view have been very few in number, and of no great weight or influence. The opinion, however, is one which the advocates of universal atonement are fond of adducing and refuting, because it is easy to refute it; and because this is fitted to convey the impression that the advocates of a limited atonement in general hold this, or something like it, and thus to insinuate an unfavorable idea of the doctrine. There is no doubt that all the most eminent Calvinistic divines hold, the infinite worth or value of Christ’s atonement, its full sufficiency for expiating all the sins of all men.

A distinction was generally employed by the schoolmen, which has been often adverted to in this discussion, and which it may be proper to explain. They were accustomed to say, that Christ died sufficiently for all men, and efficaciously for the elect, sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter pro electis. Some orthodox divines, who wrote before the extent of the atonement had been made the subject of full, formal, and elaborate discussion, and Calvin himself among the rest, admitted the truth of this scholastic position. But after controversy had thrown its full light upon the subject, orthodox divines generally refused to adopt this mode of stating the point, because it seemed to ascribe to Christ a purpose or intention of dying in the room of all, and of benefiting all by the proper effects of His death, as an atonement or propitiation; not that they doubted or denied the intrinsic sufficiency of His death for the redemption of all men, but because the statement whether originally so intended or not was so expressed as to suggest the idea, that Christ, in dying, desired and intended that all men should partake in the proper and peculiar effects of the shedding of His blood. Calvinists do not object to say[ing] that the death of Christ viewed objectively, apart from His purpose or design was sufficient for all, and efficacious for the elect, because this statement in the first clause merely asserts its infinite intrinsic sufficiency, which they admit; whereas the original scholastic form of the statement, namely, that He died sufficiently for all, seems to indicate that, when He died, He intended that all should derive some saving and permanent benefit from His death. The attempt made by some defenders of universal atonement to prove, that a denial of the universality of the atonement necessarily implies a denial of its universal intrinsic sufficiency, has nothing to do with the settlement of the state of the question, but only with the arguments by which the opposite side may be defended: and, therefore, I need not advert to it.

Secondly, It is not denied by the advocates of particular redemption, or of a limited atonement, that mankind in general, even those who ultimately perish, do derive some advantages or benefits from Christ’s death; and no position they hold requires them to deny this. They believe that important benefits have accrued to the whole human race from the death of Christ, and that in these benefits those who are finally impenitent and unbelieving partake. What they deny is, that Christ intended to procure, or did procure, for all men those blessings which are the proper and peculiar fruits of His death, in its specific character as an atonement, that He procured or purchased redemption that is, pardon and reconciliation for all men. Many blessings flow to mankind at large from the death of Christ, collaterally and incidentally, in consequence of the relation in which men, viewed collectively, stand to each other. All these benefits were, of course, foreseen by God, when He resolved to send His Son into the world; they were contemplated or designed by Him, as what men should receive and enjoy. They are to be regarded and received as bestowed by Him, and as thus unfolding His glory, indicating His character, and actually accomplishing His purposes; and they are to be viewed as coming to men through the channel of Christ’s mediation, of His sufferings and death. [FN: Witsius, De OEcon. Foed., Lib. ii., c. ix., sec. iv.; Turrettin., Loc. xiv., Qu. xiv., sec. xi]

The truth of this position has been considered as affording some warrant for saying, in a vague and indefinite sense, that Christ died for all men; and in this sense, and on this account, some Calvinists have scrupled about meeting the position that Christ died for all men with a direct negative, as if they might thus be understood as denying that there was any sense in which all men derived benefit, and in which God intended that they should derive benefit, from Christ’s death. But this position does not at all correspond with the proper import of what Scripture means when it tells us that Christ died foremen. This, as we prove against the Socinians, implies that He substituted Himself in their room and stead, that He put Himself in their legal position, that He made satisfaction to God’s justice for their sins, or that He purchased redemption for them; and this, we contend, does not hold true of any but those who are actually at length pardoned and saved. The advocates of universal atonement, then, have no right to charge us with teaching that none derive any benefit from Christ’s death except those who are pardoned and saved; we do not teach this, and we are not bound in consistency to teach it. We teach the opposite of this; and we are not deterred from doing so by the fear lest we should thereby afford to those who are opposed to us a medium for proving that, in the proper scriptural sense, He died for all men, or that the leading and peculiar benefits which His death procured for men, the benefits of salvation, were designed or intended for all mankind.

There is no very material difference between the state of the question with respect to the extent of the atonement, and to that at present we confine our attention, according as its universality is maintained by Arminians, or by those who hold Calvinistic doctrines upon other points. The leading distinction is, that the Calvinistic universalists are obliged to practice more caution in their declarations upon some points, and to deal somewhat more in vague and ambiguous generalities than the Arminians, in order to avoid as much as possible the appearance of contradicting or renouncing, by what they say upon this subject, their professed Calvinism upon other topics.

As the controversy with regard to the extent of the atonement does not turn, though many of the universalists would fain have it so, upon the question of the infinite sufficiency of Christ’s sufferings and merits, it must turn upon the question of the purpose, design, or intention of God in inflicting sufferings and death, upon His Son, and of Christ in voluntarily submitting to them. Universal atonement thus indicates and proves the existence, on the part of God and Christ, of a purpose, design, or intention, in some sense or other, to save all men. And for the Calvinistic universalists to assert the existence of such a purpose, design, or intention, in combination and in consistency with the doctrine that God has from eternity elected some men to everlasting life, and determined to save them, requires the introduction of a good deal of confusion and ambiguity into their mode of stating and arguing the case. They cannot say, with the Arminians, that Christ died equally for all men; for they cannot dispute that God’s special purpose of grace in regard to the elect, which Arminians deny, but they admit, must have, in some sense and to some extent, regulated or influenced the whole of the process by which God’s purpose was accomplished, by which His decree of election was executed. They accordingly contend for a general design or purpose of God and Christ indicated by the alleged universality of the atonement to save all men; and a special design or purpose indicated by the specialty of the bestowal of that faith (which they admit which the Arminians, practically at least, deny to be God’s gift) to save only the elect. But this, again, belongs rather to the argument of the case than to the state of the question. The substance of the matter is, that they concur with the Arminians in denying the great truth laid down in our Confession of Faith, that redemption, that is, pardon and reconciliation, are actually applied and communicated to all for whom they were procured or purchased; and, to a large extent, they employ the very same arguments in order to defend their position.

It may be worth while briefly to advert to one of the particular forms in which, in our own day, the state of the question has been exhibited by some of the Calvinistic universalists. It is that of asserting what they call a general and a special reference of Christ’s death, a general reference which it has to all men, and a special reference which it has to the elect. This is manifestly a very vague and ambiguous distinction, which may mean almost anything or nothing, and is, therefore, very well adapted to a transition state of things, when men are passing from comparative orthodoxy on this subject into deeper and more important error. This general reference of Christ’s death, its reference to all men, may mean merely, that, in consequence of Christ’s death, certain benefits or advantages flow to mankind at large, and in this sense it is admitted by those who hold the doctrine of particular redemption; or it may describe the proper Arminian doctrine of universal or unlimited atonement; or, lastly, it may indicate anything or everything that may be supposed to lie between these two views. It cannot, therefore, be accepted as a true and fair account of the state of the question about the extent of the atonement, as discussed between Calvinists, and may not unreasonably be regarded with some jealousy and suspicion, as at least fitted, if not intended, to involve the true state of the question in darkness or ambiguity. The universality of the atonement had been defended before our Confession of Faith was prepared, by abler and more learned men, both Calvinists and Arminians, than any who in modern times have undertaken the same cause. The authors of the Confession were thoroughly versant in these discussions; and it will be found, upon full study and investigation, that whatever variety of forms either the state of the question, or the arguments adduced on both sides, may have assumed in more modern discussions, the whole substance and merits of the case are involved in, and can be most fairly and fully discussed by, the examination of their position, namely, that “to all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, He doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same.” This position proceeds upon the assumption that He purchased redemption for men. The truth of this assumption is involved in the establishment of the doctrine of the atonement, of Christ’s death being a ransom price, in opposition to the Socinians, and must be admitted by all, unless, while professedly holding the doctrine of the atonement, they virtually sink down to Socinianism, by explaining it entirely away. And this being assumed, the position asserts, that all for whom redemption was purchased, have it applied or communicated to them; and that, of course, Christ died for the purpose, and with the intention, of procuring or purchasing pardon and reconciliation only for those who ultimately receive them, when they repent and believe.


That concludes Section VIII. I hope that those who disagree with me on the Atonement (particularly those who consider themselves Calvinists, and most especially those who claim to be confessional) will avail themselves of a careful reading of Cunningham’s chapter above. I have removed emphasis from the chapter throughout, and modified some of the formatting and spelling. If we could all agree with Cunningham, I believe there would be no great difference between us. I will not add further comment at this time.


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