A Response to Dr. David Allen’s Presentation on Limited Atonement, Part 1a. The Historical Question in Regards to Martin Luther

[Read my live-blog account of this presentation HERE.]

1. The Historical Question

At the beginning of his presentation, Dr. Allen mentioned a long list of theologians, including Calvin, Bullinger, Ursinus, Bunyan, Edwards, Hodge, Strong, etc. Dr. Allen asserted that all of these theologians were Calvinists, and that all of these theologians rejected Limited atonement. To examine each of these theologians’ statements concerning the extent of the atonement would require at least a year, and so I will focus attention on only two historical figures mentioned by Dr. Allen in his presentation; namely, Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards.

a. In Regards to Martin Luther

Martin Luther, of course, antedates John Calvin and therefore is not mentioned in the initial list of Calvinist theologians given by Dr. Allen, as described above. Luther is mentioned later in Dr. Allen’s presentation, however, as Dr. Allen gives an overview of the extent of the atonement in historical theology in order to argue that Limited atonement is an anomaly in the history of Christian theology. Luther is specifically mentioned in reference to my previous interaction with Dr. Allen (Dr. Allen mentioned my email to him in his presentation without naming me) in which I had argued that Luther held to Limited atonement. Dr. Allen did not address the proof I had offered for my argument concerning Luther’s view- the fact that in Luther’s comments on Romans 9:20-21, he specifically stated, “Christ did not die absolutely for all.” Luther supported this statement with an argument that would today certainly be labelled “Calvinistic,” as it has been ignored by the Lutheran tradition and repeated so often in the Reformed tradition [see my previous post, "Martin Luther Taught Limited Atonement"].

As proof that Martin Luther held to an Unlimited atonement view, Dr. Allen gave several quotes from Martin Luther in which he used the words “world” or “all” in reference to God’s intention in salvation. If Dr. Allen mentioned the specific source for these quotes, I was unable to record it due to the rapid pace of Dr. Allen’s delivery. My hypothesis concerning these quotes is that Luther is not specifically addressing matters of election or the extent of the atonement in any of them.

In Tuesday’s post, I argued that Dr. Richard Land was incorrect in his argument that John Leland sought a hybrid system of Calvinism and Arminianism and that Leland was thoroughly “Calvinistic” in his soteriology, even if he did not refer to himself as a Calvinist. I made this historical argument through both offering a positive presentation of my position based on primary source documentation and through providing a counter-explanation to the quote from Leland given by Dr. Land. In this counter-explanation, I did not charge Leland with self-contradiction, though I did argue that Leland used the terms “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” in non-technical ways (this latter argument was based on an analysis by Baptist historian Dr. Greg Wills, which analysis is consistent with my own observations concerning Leland’s writings).

I mention my argument about John Leland in order to provide an example of the type of work that must be done by anyone wishing to argue that Dr. Allen is right in his assessment of Luther and that I am wrong. For conversation on this issue to continue between parties in disagreement, one would have to disprove my hypothesis concerning the Luther quotes offered by Dr. Allen- a hypothesis made on the basis of a documented quote from a primary source in which Luther directly argued “Christ did not die absolutely for all.” One holding Dr. Allen’s view would also need to provide a counter-explanation for the quote from Martin Luther that I have given [again, the quote is found HERE, with the source documented]. As a matter of principle in historical research, when explaining various writings from an author, the historian avoids charging the author with self-contradiction if at all possible.

In the absense of the type of historical argumentation mentioned above, I believe that my argument (an argument also made by Dr. Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School in his book Theology of the Reformers) stands- Martin Luther taught Limited atonement.

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6 Comments on “A Response to Dr. David Allen’s Presentation on Limited Atonement, Part 1a. The Historical Question in Regards to Martin Luther”

  1. David Says:

    Hey there Andrew,

    I have T. George’s book in hand. Can you give the page range where he argues/implies that Luther held to ‘limited atonement’?

    You cite Luther’s comment “Christ did not die absolutely for all.” Does that preclude the possibility that Luther may have held that Christ still died conditionally for all? Its not a dumb or a trick question, as we know this sort of language and theology was being used by Zanchi down to Twisse.

    And would the facts that: at the same time Luther made that comment in Romans, he was also explicitly advocating unlimited redemption?; that later he reversed his position on the extent of “the Many;” and lastly, this one quotation stands against the scores of contrary quotations which I have documented from times before the Romans comment, concurrent to the Romans comment, and post the Romans comment?

    Again, I am not trying to be combative. I am just wondering why you argue the point on this?

    And again, if you don’t want me to post comments here, just let me know, and I will not.

    take care,
    David

    Thanks
    David

  2. strangebaptistfire Says:

    It is not just the statement, “Christ did not die absolutely for all,” to which I am referring, but also to the argument Luther gives to support this statement, in which he specifically makes the point that all is “for the elect” and he contrasts “the many” with “all” (as “all” would be understood in the sense of objectors). If you give another quote from Luther in which he specifically addresses the extent of the atonement, especially from this same time period, that would be helpful, but also you must offer an explanation of the language Luther uses in this quote.

    I will look for the page from George’s book that you request (I don’t have the book at my home) and post in regards to that tomorrow.

    -Andrew

  3. strangebaptistfire Says:

    David,

    I also wanted to ask: I thought that you said you held to “L” and only denied strict particularism- was I wrong about this?

    -Andrew


  4. David,

    Re: George.

    Theology of the Reformers, page 77.

  5. David Says:

    Hey there Andrew:

    Andrew says:

    It is not just the statement, “Christ did not die absolutely for all,” to which I am referring, but also to the argument Luther gives to support this statement, in which he specifically makes the point that all is “for the elect” and he contrasts “the many” with “all” (as “all” would be understood in the sense of objectors). If you give another quote from Luther in which he specifically addresses the extent of the atonement, especially from this same time period, that would be helpful, but also you must offer an explanation of the language Luther uses in this quote.

    David says: With my Luther file, the thing I should have done is put a list of dates with the citations so one could get the feel for the years. I once found a list of his works and when they were published. I know that I should find this again and insert the dates. I will try to look at this this week if I can.

    For the basic Luther file here, for his expositions of Jn 1:29 and 1 Jn 2:2 go here and here.

    For “the many” question, I have to wonder what evidence that musters for you.

    For example, does a restrictive reading of “the Many” entail an in principle affirmation of limited atonement? I don’t think so. For example, Oecolampadius apparently took the many as the elect in his commentary on Isaiah (according to Letham’s dissertation), and yet at the same time held to an unlimited expiation view. We also can document Musculus in his Common Places, when he discusses “the Many” in Mark etc, he limits the extent to the elect. And yet at the same time, he has an entire chapter devoted to universal redemption. Musculus’ position on this is undeniable. Further, Musculus in his Commentary on Isaiah, said if we speak to the sufficiency of the expiation, “the Many” means all mankind. If we speak of the efficiency of the expiation, “the Many” means the elect alone.

    Thus, historically, taking the “the many” in a limited way did not prove an in principle affirmation of limited atonement for at least two contemporaries of Luther. You beg the historical question when you claim that a limited reading of “the Many” automatically proves an in principle affirmation of limited atonement. When in actually, perhaps all Luther here thought was that–like Musculus in his Common Places,–”the Many” spoke to the application of redemption and justification?

    The issues are just too complex for any one of us, even you, to just hang so woodenly and dogmatically your argument on that one comment from Luther, and then to claim such a strong case.

    Thirdly, we know that 1) later Luther reversed his position on “the Many,” 2) we know that even when he asserted a limited reading of “the Many” in the same year he was asserting unlimited redemption. This tells us that its very very probable that his early limited reading of “the Many” did not signify an in principle affirmation of limited atonement, but that in terms of this verse alone, “in practice,” Luther assumed “the Many” was the elect alone.

    You have to think about this. What is an in principle affirmation and what is an in practice affirmation?

    I will give you an example. Vermgili held in practice, that the all of 1 Tim 2:4 was some of all sorts. However, it would be wrong to then claim that he held, in principle, to limited atonement. Because we know that he clearly affirms, elsewhere, an in principle affirmation of unlimited expiation. We have to be very careful to not proof-text these men, and just assume that the hermeneutic that controls our thinking today, uniformly held for them. Rather, the “systems” were far more fluid and dynamic than ours is today.

    Secondly, if I may be bold, if you take this position on Luther on “the Many”, will you accept Calvin’s opposite interpretation of “The Many” as an in principle proof that Calvin held to an unlimited expiation/redemption model? If not, why not?  [Compare Calvin with Luther, here and here; scroll down to the relevant sections.]  You just have to compare Luther’s later reversal, on “the Many” and the justification for with that of Calvin’s.

    Andrew asks:

    I also wanted to ask: I thought that you said you held to “L” and only denied strict particularism- was I wrong about this?

    David asks: I affirm the position that Christ died with a two-fold intentionality: 1) to obtain an unlimited satisfaction and redemption for all sins and sinners, 2) and to effectually secure the infallibly salvation of the elect.

    Dort:For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.

    Andrew:

    Theology of the Reformers, page 77.

    David: Thanks I will look at it asap.

    Thanks again,
    David

  6. strangebaptistfire Says:

    David,

    Luther himself, in the quote I have given, concludes from his own contrast of “the many” with “all,” and from his understanding of the implication of 2 Tim 2:10 (“All for the elect”), that “Christ did not die absolutely for all.” This statement, “Christ did not die absolutely for all,” must actually mean something. If you will not accept this statement as proof of a limited atonement position, one wonders what statement would be considered proof.

    You write, “later Luther reversed his position on ‘the Many,’” and “the ‘systems’ were far more fluid and dynamic than ours is today.” You may very well be correct in these assertions (although, I would note, Luther was firm enough in his positions to absolutely reject the Roman Catholic view of justification, the Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper, and the Anabaptist view of baptism). My point is not that Luther always taught limited atonement or that he consistently taught this doctrine. My point is simply that he did teach it. You asked, “I am just wondering why you argue the point on this?” The argument concerning Luther is offered in response to Dr. Allen’s previous denial that any Christian theologian, with the possible exception of Augustine, taught limited atonement until the post-Reformation period. At the John 3:16 Conference, Dr. Allen amended this view to say that Gottschalk was the first to teach limited atonement, but Dr. Allen quickly dismissed him by noting that he was condemned by three French councils. In other words, through his presentation of historical theology, which has now been supplemented by assertions about Calvinist theologians in the period following the Reformation, Dr. Allen is trying to argue that limited atonement is a real theological novelty in the history of the church.

    My argument concerning Martin Luther is given to demonstrate precedence for the current “5 point Calvinist” position.


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