John Owen on Limited Atonement

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A little while ago, this discussion led me to looking around to answer a question I've had for a while. There's a famous passage in John Owen on limited atonement that presents what I take to be a good argument for limited atonement but is often taken to imply something well beyond what Owen intended. I hold to limited atonement, but I think the view is often misrepresented even by its own proponents to be claiming something far beyond what the doctrine as defended by Calvin amounts to. You can see my careful statement of the issue and my reasoning here. The short of it is that I think limited atonement is the view that most Christians, Calvinist or not, have historically held and that contemporary Calvinists have co-opted the name for a further doctrine that seems to me to be neither biblical nor genuinely Calvinist.

As the argument is often used, Owen is trying to establish that the atonement covers only those who actually achieve salvation. Those who receive grace are saved, and no one else is covered by the atonement. My insistence is that limited atonement doesn't imply that there's no sense in which the atonement doesn't extend to those who do not attain salvation. The atonement covers all in the sense of being an offer available to all. It just actually covers only those who avail themselves of it. This view isn't just a Calvinist view, either. Most non-Calvinists, in my experience, accept limited atonement understood this way, and this was Calvin's own view. Some contemporary Calvinists interpret limited atonement as the first part (the atonement actually covers only the elect) and the denial of the second part (there's no sense in which it covers anyone else), but this was not Calvin's view.

What I've recently discovered is that it wasn't even John Owen's view, so the people who use his argument to establish that view are misunderstanding his argument. Owen, like Calvin, held that the atonement is effective for the elect but available to all if they were to repent. Theopedia's article on definite atonement (the term some Calvinists now prefer to refer to what is more usually called limited atonement) attributes this view to Owen and Hodge as well as Calvin, with a paragraph explaining that the view doesn't imply that God intended but somehow failed to save those for whom the atonement is sufficient but not effective.

So I think it's not just a fallacious logical inference to take the more extreme view (that there's no sense in which Christ died for those who wouldn't be saved) from Owen's argument. It's a historically inaccurate portrayal of Owen to use his argument as if he supported such a view. I consider such a view to be one kind of hyper-Calvinism (among many, some more seriously wrong than others). A friend of mine once told me that Owen must have written that passage on a bad day, but it seems on reflection that he just didn't intend it the way it's often taken.

By the way, if anyone reading this has an account at Theopedia, could you please fix the link on that entry to my Limited Atonement post? I'd do it myself, but they canceled my account a while back without ever notifying me, and I can't get reinstated without writing an essay application to satisfy their test of orthodoxy (which I'm sure I'd pass, but every time it occurs to me I'm not interested in taking the time).

2 Comments

I did the edit but it's waiting for an authorized user to approve it.

Thanks. I couldn't even get to any editing capability, so you must have something enabled that I don't, or else I just wasn't looking in the right place.

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