Limited Atonement & The Trinity – Review of Letham’s Chapter in “From Heaven He Came & Sought Her”

 

Robert Letham contributes a chapter entitled “The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement.” The chief burden of his chapter is to demonstrate that all forms of universal atonement create Trinitarian disharmony (439).

Letham lumps Amyraldians with Arminians when he states that “the atoning death of Christ does not of itself secure the salvation of anyone in particular, since it is contingent on the human response in the case of Arminianism or on the particular work of the Spirit in terms of Amyraldianism. Moreover, since the atonement is not intrinsically efficacious, it cannot yield a doctrine of penal substitution” (440).

This statement is problematic on several counts.

First, Letham accuses Arminianism of making election a “rubber stamp” to a human decision. (440). This is a caricature of Arminianism.

Second, note the operative phrase “of itself.” Interestingly, I recall Charles Hodge and W. G. T. Shedd stating that the atonement “of itself” secures the salvation of no one. No one is saved until, through the work of the Holy Spirit, they are brought to faith in Christ. This is the way the NT expresses the matter. Letham’s approach confuses extent with application.

Third, it is incorrect to argue that lack of intrinsic efficacy negates penal substitution. On what logic is this conclusion based? Letham may be slipping into the web of a commercialistic view of the atonement here.

It appears Letham assumes that, for Amyraut, Christ died equally for all in terms of intent as well as extent (438-440). This is true for Arminians but not true for Amyraut and his followers. When Amyraut spoke of Christ dying “equally’ for all, it is clear he meant that his death was equally sufficient for all, not in the sense of intention or purpose. Amyraut believed Christ died with the special intent of saving only the elect.

Letham says the “key problem” with Hypothetical Universalism (HU) is that “it posits disruption in the Trinity” (440). HU’s don’t “posit” disruption in the Trinity. What Letham means is that in his opinion, the position of HU “entails” disruption in the Trinity. Proof of this critique is the burden of pages 440-44. 

Letham is arguing that Davenant’s construct entails conflict and incoherence, but Davenant is arguing that the Trinity acts in unity to accomplish a dual intent in atonement and redemption. 

Letham’s critique of Amyraldianism and HU illustrates his point that the question about the intent of the atonement is inescapably one about its nature. For Amyraldianism and HU, the atonement cannot be intrinsically efficacious, since the results of Christ’s death do not accrue to all (439).

Yet nowhere does Scripture say the atonement is intrinsically efficacious. Intrinsically sufficient, yes; but intrinsically efficacious, no.

“Consequently, the church down through the ages has confessed both the inseparability of the works of God and the appropriations” (442). True. The church has also confessed unlimited atonement.

Letham concludes that for all forms of HU, the Trinity is of two minds: 1) Christ should die for all, 2) but in contrast determining that some, not all, will be saved (442). Here Letham appears to be dependent on Warfield’s skewed understanding and critique of HU. 

Letham says the problem of HU is highlighted in Davenant. From the premise of the need for universal gospel preaching to be grounded on a coterminous provision, he taught that the death of Christ was the basis for the salvation of all people. “Each person is salvable. Therefore the scope and intent of the atonement is universal. Christ paid the penalty not for the sins of particular individual persons but for the whole human race” (443). 

Letham notes the Lombardian formula “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” meant for many particularists only a sufficiency which was equivalent to infinite value. Letham rightly noted that Davenant held that God actually provides salvation for all. The sufficiency is ordained by God in the evangelical covenant (443-44).

Letham continues, “This universal provision in the atonement, for Davenant, overshadowed and preceded a decree whereby God determined salvation for the elect. No actual reconciliation or salvation comes before a person believes. In this, God makes available or withholds the means of application of salvation to nations or individuals, according to his will. Only the elect receive saving faith. This decree, differentiating between elect and reprobate, conflicts with God’s decision that Christ atone for each and every person by his death. God decides first one thing, then another” (444).

Letham’s assessment of Davenant’s position (444) appears to be incorrect. Davenant taught, on the basis of 2 Cor 5:18-20, that God was reconciled to the world objectively, but not all people in the world are subjectively reconciled to God. Davenant’s understanding of this universal provision did not “overshadow” God’s decree to save the elect.

Citing Jonathan Moore, Letham posits conflict in Davenant between God’s decree to save only the elect and his decree to provide universal atonement. In short, HU is inherently inconsistent.

The problem here can be traced to Warfield’s misreading of Amyraut’s concept of the divine decrees. Warfield, and apparently Letham, think that Amyraut posits four absolute (secret will) decrees sequentially, with the first two conditional. This conditionality is viewed as something man does in the process.

Letham thinks that Amyraut teaches Christ died for all equally, and for no one in particular. When Letham states “According to Amyraut, Christ died with the intention of saving all people” (438), he [Letham] is mistaken. Amyraut makes it clear Christ died with the intention of saving only the elect.

Letham has Amyraut teaching that God ordained that the death of Christ would be applied to the elect in such a way that the decree of election appears late in the sequence of the four decrees. 

Yet for Amyraut, the first two decrees appear in the revealed will of God and are conditional, while the second two decrees are absolute. Furthermore, the final two decrees are not logically dependent upon the first two decrees. Letham has misconstrued what Amyraut teaches about the divine decrees.

Here is the bottom line: the attempt to overlay an ordering of the decrees in an infralapsarian or supralapsarian scheme on those of Amyraut and Davenant in an attempt to understand Amyraut and Davenant’s approach is misguided and engages in a category fallacy.

Letham wants to frame Amyraut’s language to suggest that the decrees were a part of God’s decretal will and yet conditioned by the actions of men. For Amyraut, the first two decrees were a part of God’s revealed will. Since there are different kinds of decrees, there is no conflict, unless Letham wants to assert that God’s revealed will contradicts his decretal will. 

Letham thinks the positions of Amyraut and Davenant entail conflict in the divine decrees. But for Amyraut and Davenant, the Trinity works together in perfect harmony (general and special love, common and special grace, external and internal call, the free offer of the gospel and the provision to obtain a universal basis for the salvation of all men, along with a basis for the certain salvation of the elect). 

Finally, Letham’s critique of the Torrance brothers scores some points, but two things should be noted.

First, Letham may disagree that the incarnation, for T. F. Torrance, entails atonement for all humans (447), but let’s not forget that this was the position of the Church Fathers and the medieval church.

Second, Letham is correct to note Torrance’s error in claiming Calvin rejected the Lombardian formula, but then errs himself when he concludes from this that Calvin held to definite atonement (453). This fails to take into account the revision of the formula after Calvin’s death by supporters of definite atonement (see previous review of Hogg’s chapter), as well as the overwhelming evidence from Calvin’s writings that he did not hold to definite atonement.

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