Limited Atonement: Historical Introduction (Pt. 2)

After Theodore Beza died, an important document was put together now known as the Synod of Dort.  According to Wilkipedia, “The Synod of Dort was a National Synod held in Dordrecht in 1618/19, by the Dutch Reformed Church, in order to settle a serious controversy in the Dutch churches initiated by the rise of Arminianism.”  TULIP or the “5-Points of Calvinism” were officially formulated as a result of this Synod.  Article three under the second heading of doctrine in the Synod of Dort states: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”  Dort rejected the Arminian doctrine of universal atonement and stated that the atonement was properly for the elect alone.  The Synod of Dort seems to teach that the death of Christ was sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.  Dr. Tom Nettles makes the following observation (see p. 302ff), “In his commentary on 1 John, Calvin, in harmony with the medieval Fathers, accepts this position.”  Though Nettles himself rejects the “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” argument, he seems to agree with Curt Daniel that this was in fact the preferred view of John Calvin, W. G. T. Shedd, Andrew Fuller, J. P. Boyce, A. A. Hodge and others (see By His Grace and For His Glory, pp. 302-05). 

According to Nettles, “Two streams of though emerge from the writings of those who have defended limited atonement.  We must not confuse either with those who purposefully rejected limited atonement.  One stream, represented by such Baptists as Fuller in England and Boyce in the U.S; affirms both the sufficiency of the atonement in its nature to save all men and the limitation of the atonement to elect only in its intent.  This probably represents the majority view among Calvinists.”  This is the camp I currently find myself in, though I am very intrigued at the logical arguments presented in the second “stream.”  Biblical exegesis will ultimately need to convince me of what view is most correct.    Dr. Nettles goes on to say, “The second stream, represented by Booth in England and John Dagg in the
United States, affirms that it is the nature of the atonement to save all for whom it is sufficient, and therefore its limitation in intent is necessarily a limitation of its sufficiency.”  This is the preferred view of Dr. Nettles and many other Calvinist proponents today.  We will examine these two views in greater detail in the days to come.
 Dr. Curt Daniel makes an important distinction between those holding a Four-Point view, (men like John Bunyan); those holding a Four-and-a-Half-Point view, (men like Richard Baxter); those holding a “Strict 5-Point” view, (men like John Owen); and those holding a “Supralapsarianism” view, (men like Theodore Beza).  Daniel breaks these categories down even further on page 68 of his thesis, “The History and Theology of Calvinism.” 

In summary, he notes “There is no one mainstream Reformed view regarding the extent of the atonement.  The more Limited view has probably had more adherents, but then again, the Reformers (except Beza) all accepted the more Universal view.”  It appears Dr. Daniel and Dr. Nettles would both include the sufficient for all efficient for the elect interpretation under the moderate/mainstream Calvinism category.  Dr. Nettles would see this “unlimited in extent, limited in intent” interpretation as a fair (though not entirely accurate) 5-Point view.  Now before we get to our essential “what sayeth the Scriptures” expository thoughts portion of this post I want to summarize the arguments of Nettles (limited in extent and intent view) and Daniel’s (unlimited in extent, limited in intent view).  This post will be continued… 


5 responses to this post.

  1. John Calvin commenting on 1 John 2:2, “I pass over the dreams of the fanatics, who make this a reason to extend salvation to all the reprobate and even to Satan himself. Such a monstrous idea is not worth refuting. Those who want to avoid this absurdity have said that Christ SUFFERED SUFFICIENTLY for the WHOLE WORLD (emphasis mine) but effectively only for the elect…Although i allow the truth of this, i deny that it fits this passage.”

    I have heard many Calvinists say that if you hold a “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” view of the atonement that you are NOT a 5 point Calvinist. Some would even argue you are not a Calvinist at all.

    How can that be in light of Calvin’s own statements as well as the Synod of Dort?

    Now some of you don’t care much about labels but none the less we live in a day and age where labels are used to help summarize the various theological perspectives.

  2. Posted by Juan Z on April 5, 2007 at 12:18 am

    Could you explain what this means
    “to elect only in its intent”
    “necessarily a limitation of its sufficiency.”



  3. WGT Shedd

    “The extent of the atonement, in this sense, means its personal application to individuals by the Holy Spirit. The extent is now the intent. The question, What is the extent of the atonement? now means: To whom is the atonement actually effectually extended? The inquiry now is not, What is the value of the atonement? but, To whom does God purpose to apply its benefits.” (Shedd, Theology, 2:464).

    All 5 point Calvinists agree that the atonement was applied effectually only for the elect. It was a particular redemption. Christ secured the redemption of His elect.

    The real question is whether or not the atonement of Christ is unlimited in extent? Is it sufficient for all or only sufficient for the elect?

  4. JI Packer summarizes the Synod of Dort’s teaching on the atonement this way: “The redeeming work of Christ had as its end and goal the salvation of the elect.”

    Dort’s focus was more on the intent of the atonement (which again all 5 point Calvinists agree was limited to the elect).

    Article three under the second heading of doctrine in the Synod of Dort states: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”

    This statement from Dort does teach the atonement was sufficient for all.

    I will summarize Dr. Nettle’s response to this view tomorrow.

  5. Posted by Juan Z on April 5, 2007 at 7:28 am

    I get it now!

    Thanks for the great post

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