Tuesday, March 16

Second Less-Than-Orthodox Atonement Model

Before I started my series on the divine blood idea of the atonement, I mentioned that there were two less than orthodox models of the atonement that I regularly run into in discussions on the Baptist Board. The divine blood theory was the first, and this week I’d like to start examining the second one.

I’ve been putting this particular study off because this theory is not as straightforward and simple as the divine blood one, and thus not so easily refuted. It is also more common than the divine blood theory, and seems to be growing in popularity in fundamentalist and evangelical circles, and that means that when I argue against it, I am stepping on more toes than I was in the divine blood discussion. In addition, I haven’t come up with a good name for this theory, which makes discussing it a bit awkward. I have seen it called hypothetical universalism, but through research of that term on the internet, I’ve concluded that this theory would not fall under that umbrella. If after I’ve explained it, you have a name for it, please let me know.

Let’s start, then, with a bit of background. The majority of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would hold to either one of two views of the atonement, and I accept both of those views as orthodox. Of course, they can’t both be right, and I acknowledge one as correct and the other as incorrect, but what they agree on puts them both within the bounds of orthodoxy. These two models are each known by several names, but I’m going to call them general atonement and definite atonement. I’ll give simplified explanations of each one of them, although you must remember that because each is a nuanced position, a simple explanation is not going to do either theory complete justice.

General Atonement. Christ’s death provided provisional atonement for everyone who has ever existed and who ever will exist. The benefits of the atonement, however, are appropriated by faith. Christ died for all, but it is only for believers that the atonement is effective.

Definite Atonement. Christ’s death was particularly focused toward those God would bring to faith. God’s saving intention was toward them, and Christ’s death secured everything necessary for their salvation. Christ died with a particular group of people in mind, and it is for them that the atonement is effective.

As you can see, the two theories are different. In the first one, the group for whom provision is made and the group for whom benefits are applied are different, while in the second, the two groups are exactly equivalent. If you drew a Venn diagram of General Atonement, you would have a small circle containing all believers inside a larger circle containing all people, the larger circle being those for whom provision is made, and the smaller one being those to whom that provision is applied. Under this theory, the provision-made group is more extensive than the provision-applied group. The Venn diagram of Definite Atonement, on the other hand, would only have one circle containing all those who are brought to faith. That one circle draws the exact boundary of the group of all those for whom provision is made, and it is also the exact boundary of the group of all those to whom that provision is applied. One circle encompasses both the provision-made group and the provision-applied group precisely, because those two groups are coextensive.

However--and here is the important point--both theories agree on the parameters of the group to whom the saving benefits of the atonement are applied: These benefits go to believers only. It is this agreement on the boundaries of the group to whom the atonement is actually applied that keeps both models within the pale of orthodoxy. It is also on this point that the less-than-orthodox theory I want to discuss differs from these two orthodox models. With that bit of background established, I hope to explain more of this theory in my next post on this subject.