Wednesday, April 02, 2014

John Owen's doctrine of the atonement

Owen's work, the Death of Death in the Death of Christ is without question the greatest treatise on the atonement that has ever been written and for anyone who has read the book and studied the arguments from Scripture, no criticism has ever or could ever be effective laid against it. It is especially important in our day, with the popularization of faulty unbiblical speculative theories on the atonement by certain neo-Calvinists. It goes back to the fundamentals and smashes these false theories completely.

Of course there are many areas regarding the atonement which Owen treats which the 3FU does not talk about (since even the Canons are more summaries of doctrine and refutations of specific errors), but the basic doctrine of limited atonement as expounded by Owen is the doctrine taught in the Canons of Dordt. Ursinus made some comments in his commentary on the Heidelberger which seem to be closer to an Amyraldian view of the atonement (although it would be anachronistic to call it that), but his commentary is not the catechism itself, and it is not the official interpretation of it by the Reformed church. 

The Form for Ordination calls the Canons of Dordt an interpretation/explanation/clarification of certain points of doctrine in the Heidelberger and the Belgic Confession - and this is exactly what the Canons are. The Canons explain the doctrine of atonement in the catechism and confession as particular efficacious atonement, excluding the Amyraldian views (although it obviously does not deal with Amyraldianism as directly and fully as the Second Helvetic Confession does - history accounts for that). Nevertheless when the various statements in the Canons of Dordt are put together, especially along with the Rejection of Errors (which are part of the Canons, despite the fact that so many "Reformed" churches today have removed them), they do not allow for the idea of a hypothetical universal redemption or any kind of conditional redemption in the atonement. 

On this point, the doctrine of the atonement in the Canons is precisely that which is so much more fully expounded and proved by Owen's work (and remember Owen wrote much later than the Synod of Dordt, when Amyraldianism was being further developed and promoted as a half-way house between Calvinism and Arminianism). If the Rejection of Errors are ignored/removed, this greatly weakens the position of the Canons (understandably - otherwise they would not have seen it necessary to include them!) - although even so, still Amyraldian ideas do not sit well with them (and a case could still be made). The Westminster actually is not a strong as the Canons with regard to particular efficacious atonement - since the Canons include the phrase "the elect and them only". Sadly, the prevailing view among the neo-Calvinists is a form of the Amyraldian view of the atonement - even though they often claim to hold to the five points of Calvinism (the Canons ARE the original five points)!

But aside from the confessional issue, the Scriptural arguments of Owen are compelling and solid. For a man who has studied these arguments, and confesses that the Bible is the very word of God, he cannot consistently then deny limited atonement with Amyraldian ideas - and any Reformed church ought to discipline a man who is promoting Amyraldianism - on the basis of the Canons, and on the basis of the clear teaching of Scripture (which on this point, has been so fully explained to us by Owen's work). This is the reason that Owen's work is becoming unpopular today, because it stands in history as the greatest refutation of Amyraldian and Arminian views of the atonement ever to have been written - and these false views of the atonement promoted today by the neo-Calvinists simply cannot stand in light of it.

Owen goes back to the basics of the nature of Christ's work, as it is pictured in the Old Testament and especially as explained in Hebrews. Hebrews stands on the foreground of his book. He shows what it means that Christ is our High Priest, the nature and meaning of redemption, propitiation, atonement, etc. These are the topics which are shied away from today. People love to talk about the extent of the atonement, but they do not want to talk about its very nature. And Owen shows that its nature determines its extent. I could not praise this book highly enough. Its greatest strength is that is builds with the basics and is so thoroughly comprehensive (of course, this does means that Owen can be very long-winded at times - but long sentences were in fashion then, it was assumed that people had a longer attention span than five seconds, to be able to remember and tie in the beginning of the sentence with the end of it). Its weakness today is only that people today have such difficulty with long sentences and long trains of thought - they forget the beginning of the argument by the time they reach the end, and respond more to immediately felt emotional appeals. When someone says "Christ died to save everyone" that has a half-truth, and a strong emotional appeal, but it does not stand up to scrutiny, no matter about the sophistication of the Amyraldian position. But such snap-responses are not the Christian way: "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway." - I Cor. 9:24-27.

Sometimes that means have the spiritual self-control and discipline to study and remember long step-by-step arguments written by people who didn't realise that long sentences would be so difficult for people in our modern times. But it is rewarding.

In fact, a more accurate and emotionally appealing description of the extent of the atonement would be the word "catholic" (Rev. 5:9). "Limited" although true just does not give the main idea or the emphasis of Scripture - and this is one reason why people have such reactionary problems to it.