R. C. Sproul: The Biblical School
In an age when the floor of theology has been soaked by the heavy rain of existential thinking, it seems almost suicidal, like facing open gates on a raft made of balsa wood, to appeal to a seventeenth-century theologian to address a pressing theological problem. problem. Nothing excites the snorts of anti-rational fanatics more than an appeal to the sages of the age of the Protestant school.
“Scholasticism” is the pejorative term applied by so-called “neo-orthodoxy” (better spelled without the “e” in neo), or “progressive” Reformed thinkers who embrace the “spirit” of the Reformation while eschewing its “letter.” To the reformist thinkers of the seventeenth century who codified the insights of their judicial predecessors in the sixteenth century. To cynics of the present age, the Protestant school is seen as the embodiment or calcification of the dynamic and fluid forms of earlier Reformed insight. It is seen as a distortion from the spirited and optimistic rediscovery of biblical thought into a fatalistic surrender to the “Age of Reason,” in which the vibrant truths of redemption have been reduced to logical assumptions and encased in dry theological volumes and barren doctrinal formulas such as the Westminster Confession of Faith.
The besetting sin of men like Francis Turretin and John Owen was their penchant for precision and clarity in doctrinal statements. As G. I. Packer noted in his introduction to John Owen’s classic work, The death of death in the death of Christ:
Those who see no need for doctrinal precision and have no time for theological debates that expose divisions among so-called evangelicals may regret their resurfacing. . . . Owen’s work is a constructive and wide-ranging biblical analysis of the essence of the gospel, and should be taken seriously as such. . . . No one has the right to reject the doctrine of limited atonement as atrocity of Calvinist logic until he has refuted Owen’s proof that it is part of the uniform biblical presentation of redemption, which is clearly taught in plain text after plain text.
The “beast” created by Calvinist reasoning to which Packer refers is the doctrine of limited atonement. The so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” (which resulted from a dispute with (Arminian) demonstrators in the Netherlands in the early 17th century) were popularized by the letter TULIP, which spells out the most wonderful flower in God’s garden: T – total depravity; U — unconditional election; L — limited atonement; I – irresistible grace; P – The perseverance of the saints.
Many who take the view of God’s sovereign grace in election are willing to embrace a tulip if one of its five petals were cut off. Those who call themselves “four-point Calvinists” would like to get rid of the “L” from Tulip.
On the surface, it seems that of the “Five Points” of the Tulip, the principle of limited atonement presents the greatest difficulties. Doesn’t the Bible repeatedly teach that Jesus died for the whole world? Isn’t the scope of the atonement universal? The primary affirmation that the evangelist recites is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world.”
On the other hand, it seems to me that the easiest of the five points to defend is limited atonement. But this facility must be below the surface in order for it to manifest itself. The deepest penetration beneath this surface is that provided by Owen The death of death in the death of Christ.
First, we ask: Was Christ’s atonement a true atonement? Did Jesus really, or perhaps only, meet the requirements of God’s justice? If Christ made atonement and atonement for all people and all their sins, then obviously all people would be saved. Universal atonement, if it is actual, and not merely potential, means universal salvation.
However, the vast majority of Christians who reject limited atonement also reject universal salvation. They are specialists, not universals. They insist on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That is, only believers are saved by Christ’s atonement.
If so, then the atonement, in a sense, must be limited or restricted to a specific group, namely believers. If Christ died for all the sins of all people, this must include the sin of unbelief. If God’s justice was fully accomplished through Christ’s work on the cross, it would follow that God would be unjust in punishing the unrepentant sinner for his lack of faith and repentance, because those sins have already been paid for by Christ.