Limited Atonement and the Fallacy of Negation

I recently read a blog by a blogger named theidolbabbler arguing for Limited Atonement (see here). He argues that Limited Atonement is a doctrine so obvious that it is scandalous that anyone shouldn’t see it in scripture. His proof? Two texts (Colossians 2:13-14 and Romans 6:5-7) in which the Apostle Paul teaches that Christ died for the sins of God’s people, the church, or believers. This somehow supposed to prove “the teaching within Calvinism which states that Jesus only bore the sins of the elect… and that He did not bear the sins of every individual who has ever lived.” But is it at all obvious?

As I commented on the blog, the author is simply engaging in the so-called “fallacy of negation” and therefore deriving a faulty inference from the data.

You see, the text where Paul teaches that Christ took on himself the sins of believers, “having nailed them to the cross,” is certainly true. But does that prove that Christ did not die for the sins of unbelievers (or, more precisely, those who will/can not ever become believers, as per divine predestination)?

The faulty inference to Limited Atonement comes from saying that because Paul intends, in that context, to pick out a particular set of people’s sins who were nailed to the cross (namely, the elect/believers), that therefore it was only and particularly those who are believers/elect that Christ died for, and nobody else.

A similar mode of thinking is employed whenever people point to texts from Matthew, Ephesians or John saying that Christ for the sins of “his people”, “his Bride” or “the sheep.” The idea is that because the text speaks restrictively, therefore it speaks exclusively and only to the negation of all other people.

But that’s completely wrong-headed. That basically commits the fallacy of negation.

For example, say I have three children — Chris, Tom and Emma — and I’m talking to a friend and say, “Gee, I’m proud of Tom; he’s done so well in school,” do I therefore mean to communicate to my friend that I am NOT proud of either Chris or Emma, and that Chris and Emma have NOT done well at school? Of course not! Just because I restrict my speech in a context to Tom alone does not mean the opposite is true for Chris and Emma; I’m just restricting my speech in a context for a purpose of talking about Tom; I say nothing neither here nor there about the others.

So if, in the world, the numbers {1, 2, 3} represented all people, and {2} in the set is the elect, then it does not follow that because Paul teaches Christ died for {2} that therefore he did not die for {1, 3} also. That will not follow on any rule of logic. What you will need is a more specific text teaching that it was the elect and the elect alone, with nobody else, that Christ died for. But I think you will find that difficult, especially given the universal language of Christ’s provision apparent elsewhere (e.g. 1 Jn. 2:2).

Finally, two comments. I think the motivation behind this kind of thinking for Limited Atonement is either systematic attraction to make Calvinism seem whole and cohesive (divine predestination and election of a particular people: election of them alone, grace for them alone, Christ for them alone, etc.) and a subsequent fear of its opposite, namely, Universalism. However, I think Limited Atonement is a problem for both these purposes:

(1) Limited Atonement makes Total Depravity redundant. Even if sinful people had full fee will, with no need of grace to believe, then they could not be forgiven anyway if there was no atonement for them, so Limited Atonement is not necessarily harmonious with other Calvinist doctrines, and;

(2) Christ’s providing atonement for all does not necessarily mean effectually atoning for all. There is a difference between provision and application in the atonement. Interestingly, Universalists and Limited Atonnement advocates both deny the distinction between provision and application, taking them to be virtually synonymous or at least co-extensive, such that everyone Christ provided for is also a necessary effectual recipient of that provision. However, Unlimited Atonement proponents always make a distinction between provision and application, the latter being a subset of the former, as application is conditional on belief, whereas provision is made for all anyway. Unlimited Atonement is the position that Christ provided atonement for all, by atones effectually and really for believers alone. In making this distinction, Unlimited Atonement is thus wholly different to both Limited Atonement and Universalism.

So I see no reason to infer Limited Atonement from those texts.


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