Summary: The two main arguments the Calvinist movie present against unlimited atonement are: 1) that unlimited atonement diminishes the effect of atonement and 2) that unlimited atonement fails to countenance the double jeopardy argument. Within this essay, I contend that these two arguments violate three basic principles within Biblical theology and the arguments are both question-begging, as we will see. Therefore, given the lack of Biblical defence on the side of the Calvinist in contending for limited atonement, the arguments presented fail to disprove unlimited atonement
The Calvinist movie has done more damage than good by eschewing sound Biblical theology to the lay person with their two fallacious main arguments against unlimited atonement: 1) that unlimited atonement diminishes the effect of atonement and 2) that unlimited atonement fails to countenance the double jeopardy argument. It has to be made clear that none of these two arguments are original. Historically, both have been the tenacious insistences of Calvinists and thereby, by responding to the movie, I hope to satisfy the intellectual perturbations of the many lay persons seeking for justification in their belief of unlimited atonement.
Three Basic Principles in Biblical Theology
As I perceive it, the damage that has been done from the Calvinist movie comes from violations of three basic principles of Biblical Theology. These violations prove that the arguments for limited atonement as presented in the movie stem from their ready-made presuppositions rather than sound Biblical exegesis. The first principle is that any sound theological doctrine must prioritize understandings that are taken from careful exegesis of the Biblical passages rather than through introducing presuppositions into it which are at odds with (or lack regard for) the author’s original intent. This is the corollary of sola Scriptura—the belief that Scripture is the ultimate, infallible authority of the faith. For if the Bible is the ultimate, infallible authority of the faith, then our fallible presuppositions must be set aside as secondary to the revelations of Scripture. Further, rejecting this principle will cause our ready-made presuppositions to creep in to our theological systems and mar the purity of Scripture alone. For this will allow certain doctrines to be upheld as Church dogmas that are derived from philosophical reasonings. Granted that some doctrines have to be held through philosophical reasonings—this, however, is not the main concern. The main concern is that if the Bible were to speak on a subject and we prefer understandings derived from our presuppositions as its starting point, then we have neglected sola Scriptura. This brings us to the second principle in that if our reasonings lead us to a conclusion that is contrary to what the Scripture asserts from clear exegeses, then the conclusion derived from philosophical reasoning must be repudiated. The second is closely related to the first. Even if through sophisticated philosophical deductions (such as modus ponens) we arrive to a conclusion that is contradictory to what the Scripture is teaching, then given our belief in sola Scriptura, our philosophical conclusion must still be rejected. The third principle is that if a Biblical passage allows for multiple interpretations, adjudication of one principle over another must be through other Biblical passages if other Biblical passages do, in fact, adjudicate between the competing interpretations. What the third principle is saying is that if a verse allows for, say, three interpretations: A, B, and C, then we can only resort to any other discipline in adopting one interpretation given the absence of another passage that forces us to embrace one interpretation over another. In summary, here are the three principles as espoused within this essay:
(1) any sound theological doctrine must prioritize understandings that are taken from careful exegesis of the Biblical passages rather than through introducing presuppositions into it which are at odds with (or lack regard for) the author’s original intent.
(2) if our reasonings lead us to a conclusion that is contrary to what the Scripture asserts from clear exegeses, then the conclusion derived from philosophical reasoning must be repudiated.
(3) if a Biblical passage allows for multiple interpretations, adjudication of one principle over another must be through other Biblical passages if other Biblical passages do, in fact, adjudicate between the competing interpretations.
As these three principles stem from the very roots of the Christian faith, I contend that as long as these three principles are violated, other essential doctrines of Christianity (such as the deity of Christ, trinity, etc.) can feasibly be rejected and we arrive to a theological collapse.
Issue 1: The Movie Does Not Take into Account the Bible as a Whole
The third principle that we have is that if a passage allows for multiple interpretations, adjudication of one principle over another must be primarily through other Biblical passages. How is this related to the movie? In 37:31, W. Robert Godfrey cites Matthew 20:28 where it is written, “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Godfrey then argues that since the passage uses the word many and not all, therefore, limited atonement is true. First, it seems terribly absurd to argue from Matthew 20:28 that the conclusion is that Christ died only for the elect. There is a passage in which Paul affirms that Christ died for him (Gal. 2:20). Does this mean that Christ died only for Paul? Of course not! By the Calvinist logic, passages in which Christ is depicted as dying for Israel must also be interpreted as Christ dying for Israel exclusively as a nation. The point is that nowhere in the verse is it written that Christ died for the many exclusively (assuming that the ‘many’ refers to the elect) and Godfrey is superimposing his own presuppositions into the text—which is a violation of our first and second principle. Also, the word many (πολύς) simply means a lot of people—this can mean either just the many of the elect or all people. Both can conceivably be said to be ‘many.’ So, which one is the correct interpretation? Given our third principle, we must try to find other Scriptural passages that force us to favor one interpretation over another. Ironically, there are, at least, seven different occurrences in the NT (New Testament) in which Christ’s atonement is described as unlimited in its scope and at least one occurrence in the NT in which the reprobates (non-elect/damned) are described as being the objects of the atonement of Christ. These two camps of verses directly contradict the idea that the objects of the atonement are only the elect:
(1) The universal extent of atonement (John 3:16; 4:42; 2 Cor. 5:19;1 Tim. 2:5-6; 4:10; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 2:2)
(2) The damned described as having been the objects of Christ’s death (2 Pet. 2:1)
1 Timothy 2:5-6-4:10
Consider the following passages:
For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time,
For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.
These set of verses provide explicit and compelling case for unlimited atonement. St. John of Chrysostom, in commenting to 1 Timothy 2:5-6, writes, “Was Christ then a ransom for the Heathen? Undoubtedly Christ died even for Heathen; and you cannot bear to pray for them. Why then, you ask, did they not believe? Because they would not: but His part was done. His.”1 The rest of the verses present compelling case for unlimited atonement. 1 Timothy 4:10 favors the interpretation that in the pastoral letters, the theme of the universality of Christ’s atonement is real. How has the Calvinists responded to these passages? The Calvinists would typically respond to 1 Timothy 2:5-6 by claiming that the “all” in the verse means “all types of people.” They would back up by pointing to v. 1-2 in which the word “all” there may be interpreted to refer to “all types of men.” This seems barely plausible; what justification may there be for such a reading? Further, it seems that the wording would be awkward if what Paul meant to do was to equivocate “all” in v.1 with the “kings and all who are in high positions.” Why not just place the second clause directly in the first verse? The wording seems to be more natural if we assume that Paul emphasizing on the love of God by in the first sentence and then he goes on to add “[especially] kings and all who are in high positions.” This eschews any kind of equivocation between the “all” in v.1 and the authorities in v.2. Paul is emphasizing on the need to pray for authorities and not equivocating them with the “all” in v.1. With this kind of reading, then the “all” in v.4 also then refers to all people unconditionally. To this Guthrie points out, “But many scholars…argue that the words imply salvation (i.e. that every single person will be saved). There may have been a tendency towards exclusiveness on the part of some, who were influenced perhaps by the same urge that drove the later Gnostics into their own exclusive circles of initiates‚ and Paul, to provide an antidote‚ may here be stressing God’s universal compassion. These words fairly represent the magnanimity of the divine benevolence. The words all men must be linked with the ‘all’ of verse 1. Intercession for all men could be justified only on the ground of God’s willingness to save all.”2
Clearer passages cannot be found than these referring explicitly to the universal extent Christ’s atonement and it is truly unfortunate that the Calvinist movie has eschewed from discussing these verses. In their absence of the discussions of these verses, we have no reason to reject the surface, literal reading, of these passages and affirm the universal extent of Christ’s atonement.
Issue 2: Ligon Ducan Begs the Question by Claiming that Unlimited Atonement Limits the Effect of Christ’s Atonement
The movie presents its second argument for limited atonement from 37:00 to 39:50 where Ligon Duncan says,
“Everybody limits the atonement—it’s either limited in its extent or limited in its effect. If you believe that the atonement is for all humanity and not all humanity is saved, then you believe the atonement is limited in its effect…there’s a huge and vast difference between saying that Christ actually saves over against saying that Christ accomplished the theoretical salvation that makes men salvation now it’s up to them”. (36:26-37:24)
The problem with this argument is twofold. First, this argument cannot stand against the previous Biblical data about the universal extent of Christ’s atonement. Of course, as has been mentioned previously, the argument would already not stand given our first and second principle. The idea that the atonement is limited in its efficacy if its extent spans to the non-elect is a philosophical presupposition that must be rejected given the explicit Biblical data that we have no matter how convincing as a philosophical argument that it is. Second, the argument begs the question—it presupposes what it seeks to prove. The interlocuter is presupposing that the efficacy of the atonement is limited if the extent of the atonement is unlimited. But why think a thing like that? Godfrey says, “He [Christ] did not come to give his life for ransom for all because if he did come to give his life for ransom for all and all are not saved, then the ransom of Jesus is ineffective” (37:34-37:44). The main presumption here seems to be that the atonement is useless to the unbelievers that will choose to reject the free offer of salvation of God. However, it is just as plausible to think that the atonement, to the unbelievers, can be a basis for their condemnation (2 Pet. 2:1). The movie gives no justification whatsoever as to why this should be impossible and thereby, this argument is bereft of its merit.
Issue 3: Joel Beeke Presents the Double Jeopardy Argument That is Question-begging
Beeke presents, within the movie, a traditional Calvinist argument for limited atonement called the double jeopardy argument. Here’s how the argument goes:
“In no system of theology is there consistency in maintaining Jesus died for everyone’s sins and therefore sins are paid for once and then sinners go to hell and they are paid for again. That makes no sense at all. Everyone that Jesus died for will go to heaven”. (38:24-38:43)
The presumption within this argument is that Jesus paid an actual redemption on the cross and not potential redemption. If it were the case that Jesus did pay an actual redemption on the cross, then the conclusion of this argument would follow. However, the argument begs the question by presuming Christ’s attainment of actual redemption on the cross. It seems that the Bible insists on the atonement being conditional on the faith of the recipient as the Bible teaches (John 3:16; principle 2). To this, Craig says,
“Reformed thinkers themselves recognize this truth in distinguishing between redemption as accomplished and as applied. They will say that our redemption was accomplished at the cross but that it is applied individually when persons are regenerated and place their faith in Christ….The undeniable distinction between redemption accomplished and applied makes sense only if we say that Christ’s death wins our potential redemption and that that potential is actualized in individual lives through repentance and faith”.3
Once we rid ourselves from the question-begging assumption that Christ paid an actual redemption on the cross, then this argument seems to be emptied of any power. In fact, if the Reformed were to insist that Christ’s atonement paid an actual redemption, then it would lead to the absurd conclusion that we would have been saved since the death of Christ in A.D 30—which is absurd! This would also come to conflict to many verses that talk about salvation being conditional to faith (Jn 3:16; Rom. 10:9), which would be a violation of the first and second principle.
This double jeopardy argument may also be attributed to the movie’s reference to Hebrews 9:12: “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” The third principle now is also vital in understanding how unlimited atonement may be justified in light of Hebrews 9:12; Hebrews 9;12 is a verse that does not talk explicitly about the extent of the atonement and thereby, we have multiple possible interpretations as to who are the ones for whom Christ “obtained eternal redemption.” Given the other verses about the unlimited extent of the atonement (John 3:16; 4:42; 2 Cor. 5:19;1 Tim. 2:5-6; 4:10; Heb. 2:9; 1 John 2:2), we are forced to adopt the view that this is merely talking about the elect to whom Christ secured salvation for. Yet, there are the non-elect to whom Christ also died that they may receive the basis of their condemnation from Christ’s death
The Calvinists have yet to present a convincing argument for limited atonement. As we have seen, the two main arguments for limited atonement are both question-begging and are easily swayed once we take off their presuppositions. The general problem with the approach of the Calvinist movie, it seems, is in how they misinterpret many Biblical assertions about the universal extent of Christ’s death and in the lack of applications of these three principles. These three principles of Biblical theology are so vital that rejections of them will allow for our non-Biblical presuppositions about God to take over our theology. For example, the doctrine of the humanity of Christ is forced on us as Christians because we believe in the infallibility of the Bible. But suppose I were to say, “There is no consistency in any theological system in maintaining that Christ came down as a human and yet a God at the same time!” What is wrong with that statement? Clearly, by making that statement, I have denied the infallibility of Scripture by superimposing my philosophical presuppositions to the Biblical data about Christ’s humanity. To put the Calvinists’ assertions more clearly in perspective, I can reformulate the Calvinists’ statement about other major doctrines of the Bible as well. Given Godfrey’s statement, for example, I can also assert the following against the doctrine of divine forgiveness and say that forgiveness is not available for everyone: “Everybody limits God—we either limit him in his justice or in his mercy. If you believe that forgiveness is available for all humanity and not all humans are deserving of his forgiveness, then you believe the God is limited in his justice.” Is this just a satirical caricature of Godfrey’s statement? Doubtfully so. For the primary reason we would reject that statement is given the many Biblical assertions that everyone can be forgiven given their repentance and faith. We reject that statement given all three principles about the priority of Scripture over every other intellectual disciplines. In the same way, given that there are a plethora of verses describing the unlimited extent of Christ’s atonement, we conclude that the contentions within the Calvinist movie for limited atonement must be repudiated.
1John Chrysostom. (1889). Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy. In P. Schaff (Ed.), J. Tweed & P. Schaff (Trans.), Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Vol. 13, p. 431). New York: Christian Literature Company.