Book Reviews

The Extent of the Atonement

A Historical and Critical Review.

David L. Allen Nashville November 1, 2016

I had a conversation with a fellow postgraduate student years ago who held firmly to the notion that limited atonement was the only valid theological point of view. It was his contention that people like myself who believed the biblical texts supported unlimited atonement would eventually become universalists, if we were consistent in our theological method. For him, consistency in theology was essential. He was not deterred by my observation that he seemed to be more consistent than the biblical writers, who apparently had a greater capacity for theological tension than he did. Many people in the history of the church had held unlimited atonement and did not become universalists. That, he said, was only because they were not consistent in their theology. I was, he said, an Amyraldian, while he was a Calvinist.

If this book had been available to me then, it would have been a great help in a discussion of this sort. I might have been inclined to say he was more consistent than Calvin, and really not so much a Calvinist as an Owenist (John Owen, 1616–1683), since Calvin’s writings contained statements supportive of unlimited atonement: “Our Lord Jesus suffered for all and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation in Him” (Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ [1559], in reference to John 3:16; more fully quoted by Allen, 538).

This study carefully and comprehensively gathers writings from the history of the church on the extent of the atonement and comments judiciously on those writings. It is valuable not only in the initial reading, but also as a reference work for busy pastors and teachers and laity, who will find this work both readable and instructive.

The author, dean of the School of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, has a particular interest in the discussion about the extent of the atonement among Southern Baptists (he notes that the president of Southern Seminary is the only one of six Southern Baptist seminary presidents to affirm limited atonement, 606n195). Allen’s discussion, however, includes a broad swath of evangelical writers, both those supportive of unlimited atonement (e.g., Lewis Chafer, Charles Ryrie, and Robert Lightner) and those affirming limited atonement (e.g., D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper). In particular, he shows the writing of Carson to be disingenuous, that of Grudem to be historically inaccurate, and that of Piper to be self-contradictory (534–42; Piper is also critiqued elsewhere, 754–62), flaws he finds common to the limited atonement position. He includes in part 3 an extended critique (657–763) of the recent Crossway book endorsing limited atonement, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (2013).

The introduction (xiii–xxviii) clearly explains the issues and options that need to be considered, and the conclusion (“Why Belief in Unlimited Atonement Matters,” 765–91) summarizes well the significance of this work. There are three indexes: subject, name, and Scripture. The last index is helpful for a reader interested in further study of commentaries or essays that examine particular passages in more detail. Allen, for example, cites the work of I. Howard Marshall on the Pastoral Letters as especially worthy of study (422). Allen’s fine historical and critical review deserves a second volume that focuses on an expanded exegetical review of the passages relevant to this discussion, carried out as carefully and ably as he has done the historical review. I agree with his statement in the preface: “In the final analysis, I believe limited atonement to be a doctrine in search of a text” (x).

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