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.

A. W. Tozer on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) was one of the finest Christian thinkers and preachers of the relatively recent past. I have only just become familiar with him quite recently, but have been delighted to share in some of the insights of his writings.

One such insight that I have particularly appreciated is that found below on the topic of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

As an Arminian, I have never understood the Calvinist insistence that divine sovereignty and control implies that human beings cannot be granted (libertarian) free will. I have always thought it rather obvious that a God who may do whatever he pleases with the powers of the heavens and the earth can make man such that he does possess free will.

I have never encountered a quotation such as Tozer’s that so perfectly encapsulates and summarises my view on this topic at current.

Thus, without further ado, here it is; the quotation from A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Authentic Media, 2008), pp.144-145:

[p.144] “Another real problem created by the doctrine of divine sovereignty has to do with the will of man. If God rules His universe by His sovereign decrees, how is it possible for man to exercise free choice? And if he cannot exercise freedom of choice, how can he be held responsible for his conduct? Is he not a mere puppet whose actions are determined by a behind-the-scenes God who pulls the strings as it pleases Him?

“The attempt to answer these questions has divided the Christian church neatly into two camps which have borne the names of two distinguished theologians, Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin. Most Christians are content to get into one camp or the other and deny either sovereignty to God or free will to man. It appears possible, however, to reconcile these two positions without doing violence to either, although the effort that follows may prove deficient to partisans of one camp or the other.

“Here is my view: God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will [p.145] of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.”

Notice that Tozer first acknowledges the real difficulty in discussing divine sovereignty and human freedom. He therefore does not so presume to state his opinion lightly. Nor is he so proud or dogmatic so as to suppose that his word shall be the final and all-encompassing say on the matter.

Yet, to me, what he then goes on to say is simply masterful. He asserts that it is possible — nay, that it is, indeed, the case — that God has sovereignly decreed that mankind should have free will. Whatever choice man then makes in this capacity God has given him, man fulfills that original decree, not in that God causally determined and thus necessitated any one particular choice any given man should make, but that in so making the choice, that man has thereby exercised that rational capacity of free agency that God, by his sovereign free will, has decided that mankind should have.

The one quibble I would have with Tozer is that it seems implicit in his quotation that he believes that this is a middle ground between two extremes of Arminianism and Calvinism, one which denies divine sovereignty and the other that denies genuine human free will, respectively.

Yet if one were to compare what Tozer says to what writers such as Jacobus Arminius and John Wesley say, then it would actually become apparent that how Tozer has explained his position falls squarely within the Arminian camp. For on Arminianism, the freedom of our will just is a sovereign gift of divine grace in creation and salvation — in creation, as subsisting in the nature of man in original righteousness (that which was lost in the Fall); and in salvation, as God draws us who are totally depraved and thus unable of ourselves to come to him by His Spirit, and softens our hearts through Prevenient Grace in order to enable us sinners freely to come to Himself.

So rather than being a middle way through Arminianism and Calvinism, I believe Tozer’s point of view is an example of genuinely classical Arminianism. Perhaps what Tozer thought was Arminianism was actually Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. For that, we can forgive him. For it is a common misconception among those who are not sufficiently acquainted with the original writings or Arminius, Wesley or the Remonstrants that Arminiainsm is Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian.

Nevertheless, classical Arminianism is genuinely a theology of grace — grace from beginning to end — with a sovereign God who loves his creatures, and gives each one a libertarian free will to make genuine, moral choices, and we fulfill his sovereign decree for us to have a free will whenever we exercise that moral capacity that God has given us by his grace.