Canons Of Dort (14): Only We Sinned But Only God Saves

Believer, you have been saved by the blood of the lamb and not because Christ made salvation possible for those who do their part.

The doctrine that, in the atonement, God intended to save his elect, is not a Reformed peculiarity.1 It is a mainstream doctrine which has been held by some of the greatest teachers in the Christian tradition, among them Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine, Gottschalk, Peter the Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini as well as Calvin and the entire Reformed tradition. One should also remember that the nature of the controversy over the extent of the atonement has changed somewhat since the rise of Arminianism, the Remonstrants and the response by the Synod of Dort (1618–19). 

 

According to its critics, including the Remonstrants, the great fault of the Reformed doctrine of the atonement is that it is too exclusive. That, however, is not how the Reformed Churches presented their understanding of Scripture. Their opening note under the Second Head of Doctrine (“Concerning the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Man Thereby”) was on the grace of God in saving sinners at the cost of the life of the Son of God.

The doctrine that, in the atonement, God intended to save his elect, is not a Reformed peculiarity.1 It is a mainstream doctrine which has been held by some of the greatest teachers in the Christian tradition, among them Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine, Gottschalk, Peter the Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini as well as Calvin and the entire Reformed tradition. One should also remember that the nature of the controversy over the extent of the atonement has changed somewhat since the rise of Arminianism, the Remonstrants and the response by the Synod of Dort (1618–19). In the discussions before Dort, one often finds the elements of the doctrine of definite atonement, but because the question is not as sharply focused as it became in the early 17th century, the answers are not as detailed as they later were. This is the nature of the development of Christian doctrine, controversy often produces theological precision.

Augustine of Hippo, the greatest of all the church fathers, taught most of the elements of definite atonement and was the “first great defender of the efficacy and particularism of God’s grace.”2 In his controversy with Pelagius and later the semi-Pelagians Augustine, of course, rejected the doctrine of free will (liberum arbitrium) in favor of absolute predestination and with his doctrine of predestination he also taught that Jesus had not died for everyone who ever lived.3

Augustine had a cadre of supporters, among them was a French theologian, who was living in Marseilles at the time of the outbreak of the semi-Pelagian controversy in 426. From 431–34 he wrote a number of books against the semi-Pelagians. Prosper was explicit that, in one sense, with respect to his incarnation and the fall of all humans, Christ can be said to have died for the entire world. Yet, it can also be said that Christ “was crucified only for those who were to profit by his death.”4

Some think that he softened somewhat in the years following 432, that he could not reconcile those passages in Scripture in which God reveals himself as desiring the salvation of all, with his earlier notions of double predestination.5 He did teach (450) that sinners have the power to reject divine grace, and they are the same who are passed over. Those who believe, however, are those who are elect.6 Only those who are elect come to faith.7

It appears that they misunderstand his inchoate argument about what would later come to be called “The Free Offer of the Gospel.”8 God reveals himself as willing what we know he has not decreed, the salvation of all.9 Some he passes by and some he elects to faith. Proof that he was teaching a seminal version the free offer is that in several of the same passages where he affirms the universal divine will to save, he immediately moves to a discussion of preaching.10 Likewise, when he says that Christ died for all men, he made it clear that the all equals “sinners” so that he was not necessarily teaching universal atonement.11

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived.12 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.13

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).14 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).15

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