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The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review Hardcover – November 1, 2016
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—Craig A. Evans, dean of the School of Christian Thought and John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins, Houston Baptist University
“The extent of the atonement is among the most controversial questions in Reformed theology. It is probably also the most confusing and misunderstood. . . . Enter David Allen’s monumental book, an absolute tour de force. The Extent of the Atonement leaves no stone unturned in tracing the history of the doctrine, critiques every view and proponent with penetrating insight, and is written with a persuasive cogency throughout. The book is an education in how to do theology responsibly and how to read the Bible faithfully. To top it off, Allen writes with the heart of a pastor and the wit and wisdom of a seasoned preacher. A must-read for anyone interested in the question of what the cross achieves.”
—Brian Rosner, principal, Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia
“The issue of limited atonement has proved a controversial matter for many years and one that is unlikely to disappear at any time in the near future. One of the reasons for this is that the question it seeks to answer is one which developed over time and has a number of subtle and sophisticated facets. . . . While David Allen and I disagree on the matter, this work is an irenic and learned contribution to the topic which carries the historical, and thus doctrinal, discussion forward in an extremely helpful way. I am thus happy to recommend this work of a friendly critic. It deserves wide readership and careful engagement.”
—Carl R. Trueman, Paul Woolley Chair of Church History and professor of church history, Westminster Theological Seminary
About the Author
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David Allen serves as the dean of the School of Preaching, distinguished professor of preaching, director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He was previously Dean of the School of Theology from 2004-2016. He received the B.A. at Criswell College (1978), Master of Divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1981), and Ph.D. in Humanities with a Major in Linguistics from The University of Texas at Arlington (1987).
And, in the interest of full disclosure, let me state up front that I am a recovering High-Calvinist. Lest that term confuse you, Dr. Allen gives some helpful definitions near the beginning of his massive, comprehensive and vitally important work on the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
The main factions in the debate as he lists them in the introduction (noting also that each have nuances within their camps) are as follows –
Arminianism: Christ suffers for the sins of all mankind with an equal intent to save all people.
Classic/Moderate Calvinism: Christ suffers for the sins of all mankind, but with an unequal intent/will to save all people.
High Calvinism: Christ only suffers for the sins of the elect because of his singular intent.
Hyper-Calvinism: Christ only suffers for the sins of the elect because of his singular intent.
What separates the last two is brought out numerous places within the book, but has mostly to do with the latter rejecting the free offer of the Gospel.
That said – let me plunge in.
Part 1 of the book surveys the extent of the atonement in Church history. It is divided into 4 sections – covering all the major player who may have written on the topic in: 1. The Early & Medieval Era; 2. The Reformation Era; 3. The Post-Reformation Era; and 4. The Modern Era.
Part 2 is comprised of 3 chapters focusing on the extent of the atonement in the Baptist tradition. Once again surveying most of the key writers and preachers on the atonement among: 1. English General and Particular Baptists; 2. North American Baptists; and 3. Southern Baptists. Being a Southern Baptist himself, this is of particular interest to Dr. Allen, but by no means indicates a short shrift of the others.
Part 3 is in 2 parts. First is a detailed critical review of every chapter of the highly acclaimed Crossway volume “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective.” The 2nd is a concluding chapter titled: “Why Belief in Unlimited Atonement Matters.”
And let me tell you, that this book soars. It soars conclusively (in my estimation) in securing the reality that an unlimited atonement in extent, NOT application, has been the majority report throughout ecclesiastical history; the majority report among the early Reformers – including Calvin; and was the main expression on the question of the atonement until the encroachment of a strict limitarian view was espoused by Beza, and championed (perhaps) most by John Owen.
The historical evidence is so overwhelming that the Owenic view was not and never has been “The” Reformed view, as to be virtually incontrovertible. Now as Dr. Allen notes, counting noses isn’t how we do sound theology. We go back to the text of Scripture for that. But it does drive us to consider how so many for so long – solidly IN the Reformed tradition, rejected a strict either/or construct (Jesus either died for all OR for the elect) in favor of a both/and construct, speaking to an unlimited atonement when considered in and of itself, with the reality of a particularistic application of it by God’s sovereign choice.
Of particular interest in this line is how the extent of the atonement was the most hotly debated topic at the Synod of Dordt, and how both Dordt’s statements and the Westminster’s were written with a measure of intentional ambiguity to allow for those on both sides of this question to sign them in clear conscience.
All along the way in these chapters, Dr. Allen proves himself to be the consummate myth-buster. Strict limited atonement is THE Reformed position – busted. Amyrault was a heretic – busted. Amyraldianism is not Reformed – busted. Strict limited atonement came first – busted. All the Reformers held to strict limited atonement – busted. (You will be shocked to find out just how many of those you thought held to limited atonement – didn’t.) British hypothetical universalism was Amyraldian – busted. So-called 4-point Calvinism is Arminianism – busted. Universal or unlimited atonement must result in universalism – busted! On and on and on.
In fact, my own journey out of being a high Calvinist to becoming a Moderate/Classical Calvinist years ago, was one of being disabused of many of these myths as I went. Myths that when taken in composite can so jade and confuse, as to make you question sound exegesis simply on the force of how all these men can’t be wrong – even when repeating common errors over and over. How I wish I has had access then to “The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review” by Dr. David Allen. But I do now, and so do you.
So as to prevent this review from being as long as the book itself (a hefty 848 pages) let me point out what I think are the key strong points, and offer a suggestion for those who want a quicker handle on it all.
What the book does over and over and over again, is address the principle arguments for a strict limitarian view, both exegetically and logically – and examines how non-limitarians have addressed those same Scripture passages and logic. In the process, by virtue of its unique structure, you get to hear dozens of Reformed voices argue against limitarianism. None, surrendering election, or particularization in the application of the atonement. All, in necessary and clarifying context.
Thus there is a constant reminder not to confound the accomplishment of the atonement with its application. Repeated warnings not to buy into a mere instrinsic sufficiency in the atonement as opposed to extrinsic sufficiency. Over and over again the negative inference fallacy is exposed, rejected and properly defeated. The commercial and pecuniary foundation of so much of Owen’s thinking is debunked. The weight placed by so many on the “distributive” versus universal use of “all” is demythologized and properly contexualized, each in its proper place. The fallacy in Owen’s famous trilemma is exposed and the illogic dismantled. How the limitarian view severely discounts justification by faith in its proper place and time.
And in every place, the centrality of this to the right preaching of the Gospel take its rightful place front and center. All this by voice after voice after voice among our Reformed brethren.
Now maybe you are not going to wade through all 848 – pages, and that with some chapters offering in excess of 800 end notes! I hear your cry. Though I bid you to do it anyway, both for your education and your soul.
But if you want the shortcut – here is my recommendation. If you only read the detailed refutation of John Owen’s The Death of Death in Christ, in the section bearing his name, and, the section on David Schrock, you will interact with all of the pertinent Scriptures and arguments from the strict limitarian view, and all of the key corrections in exegesis and logic in showing the error of that view. These two alone are worth the price of the book, and a couple of evenings in deep reading and reflection. They will change you.
David Allen has done an invaluable service to the Body of Christ as a whole, and to Calvinists especially in a critical time in American Christianity. As he said to me in a brief meeting at the recent ETS gathering in San Antonio – (paraphrasing) “I did not write this book against Calvinists, but to make my Calvinist brothers BETTER Calvinists.” That spirit breathes on every page of this book – and spoke to me that way before I ever met the good Doctor.
I had wanted to write this sort of book ever since my own study led me out of strict limitarianism. But I’m glad I didn’t. Because here, it is done so much better than I ever could. I simply do not have the wherewithal. Dr. Allen singularly does. May God be pleased to use it as a much needed corrective in the current swell of interest in Reformed theology. For some, it will give you the permission you’ve been seeking to preach the Gospel the way you know you should have, all along. To the glory of God and the good of His Church.
It is important to note at the outset that Allen is a well-known and longtime critic of Reformed theology. More specifically, Allen has been outspokenly opposed to the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement for as long as I can remember. That said, as readers look to approach The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review, it is reasonable to expect that Allen would produce a volume firmly situated within such conclusions. I am here to report that the theological outcome of this volume comes as no surprise! Where the surprise will surface for most readers is in the historical/theological depth with which Allen guides the reader.
The Extent of the Atonement is divided into three major sections: (1) the extent of the atonement in Church history, (2) the extent of the atonement in the Baptist tradition, and (3) the extent of the atonement: a critical review. The first two major sections are somewhat self-explanatory in their content. Allen surveys nearly every significant historical and modern figure that concerned themselves, intentional or not, with issues related to the extent of the atonement. The third major section offers a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter and point-by-point review of the widely praised From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. For those who have previously interacted with this work, the cover price of the present volume is well-worth a glimpse into Allen’s engagement with those authors.
There is much to be praised about this volume. For starters, I was happy to see the threefold emphasis that Allen placed on the atonement being aligned in its (1) intent, (2) extent, and (3) application. This is an important aspect of the conversation that, unfortunately, gets overlooked far too often. It is here that the extent of the atonement is rightly positioned within its proper soteriological framework. Second, the level of historical depth and analysis from an Arminian perspective is unparalleled in the market today. Lastly, while I found myself disagreeing with Allen’s analysis more than I found myself agreeing, I appreciated the evenhandedness of his interaction throughout.
There are also a few hesitations or shortcomings about this volume. At least two are worth mentioning at this point. For starters, despite spending nearly a decade researching and writing on the topic, Allen still seems to misrepresent the Reformed understanding of limited atonement in places, especially in the case where exegesis is the driving force of the conversation. Second, I failed to find anything, by way of an argument against limited atonement that was breakthrough or revolutionary. That is, I was honestly unable to find anything in this volume that hasn’t been discussed or addressed elsewhere by both sides of the conversation. Still, it should be noted at this point that the level of detail of Allen’s work, including the different directions of approach, is in a caliber of its own.
The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review by David L. Allen is a massive theological achievement. To say that Allen is exhaustive is an understatement. It is theologically informed and pastorally sensitive. Allen has done his homework (to one degree or another) and presented the reader with a tour de force through the theological trenches of the atonement. For whom did Christ die? Allen contends that Christ died to make salvation possible for all. Those who agree with Allen’s conclusions will now possess a significant work to interact with and refer to often. Others will likely leave unaffected. Nonetheless, placing theological persuasions aside, David L. Allen has written an unavoidable book for anyone who would seek to approach the subject of atonement. While Allen and I don’t see eye-to-eye on the matter, I have to admit; this book was much better than I initially anticipated. It comes highly recommended!