Limited Atonement in Historical Theology

This past February, Dr. David Allen, the Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered two lectures from the book of Hebrews. In the first lecture, Dr. Allen argued for Lukan authorship of Hebrews and against the contemporary practice of sign gifts as found in modern charismatic movement. In the second lecture, Dr. Allen offered additional arguments for Lukan authorship of Hebrews and argued against Limited atonement. [Listen to the lecture HERE.]

Dr. Allen’s argument against Limited atonement is primarily based on his understanding of Hebrews 2:9, and I hope to interact with his teaching on this verse in a future post. In this post, however, I wish to examine some historical comments that Dr. Allen made while prefacing his assertions from Hebrews.

Dr. Allen said:

Virtually every Christian from the early church until the Reformation believed in an unlimited atonement. That is a historical, provable fact. The only possible exception to that fact would be the later writings of Augustine, and even that’s disputed… Martin Luther believed in an unlimited atonement… Lutherans still believe that today, it’s a part of their doctrinal statement… All of the [early] English reformers– Cranmer, Latimer, you just name [them]– they all believed in an unlimited atonement… Ulrich Zwingli believed in a universal atonement… Universal atonement was the accepted viewpoint even of Reformed theology until about the year 1600. [The Heidelberg Catechism is quoted in support of this last point: “He bore in body and soul the wrath of God against the whole human race.”] Theodore Beza was probably the first Reformer to explicitly teach limited atonement, and then follows the Synod of Dort.

Dr. Allen’s arguments for Lukan authorship of Hebrews are formidable. Though many readers may retain a strong suspicion that some other human author was likely used by God to write the book, if anyone wishes to make a convincing argument concerning the authorship of Hebrews, he or she would certainly have to take Allen’s research into account. The fact that Allen’s research in this regard is so thorough makes his historical research on the topic of Limited atonement all the more disappointing, for he clearly overlooks many of the most pertinent facts, as will be demonstrated below.

Augustine and his contemporaries:

Dr. Allen asserted, “Virtually every Christian from the early church until the Reformation believed in an unlimited atonement. That is a historical, provable fact.” Then he said, “The only possible exception to that fact would be the later writings of Augustine, and even that’s disputed.” Dr. Allen is right in mentioning Augustine. And he is correct in saying that Augustine’s position on this issue is disputed, for as Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, President of Westminster Seminary California, has noted, “Augustine did not express clearly or discuss at length the doctrine of the definite or limited atonement.” Godfrey went on to explain:

[But] he [Augustine] did come very close to [explicitly teaching] this doctrine… [Augustine] interpreted one of the key passages of Scripture, 1 John 2:2, in a way that was adopted by those who later taught the doctrine of limited atonement… Augustine argued that the sense of this verse in 1 John was not that Christ died indiscriminately for every individual in the world but for the Church in all times throughout the world. [W. Robert Godfrey, “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618,” Westminster Theological Journal 37:2 (Winter 1974), 134.]

At the beginning of the quote from Dr. Allen, wise caution is exercised when he uses the word “virtually.” In examining the extant writings in which Christians made mention of issues in relation to the extent of the atonement, it may be reasonable to assume that the great majority of believers in Christ understood the atonement to be “unlimited.” Dr. Allen throws caution (and sound research) to the wind, however, when he asserts that Augustine is the “only possible exception” in an otherwise universal Christian acceptance of unlimited atonement existing until the time of the Reformation. There were contemporaries of Augustine who seemed to indicate that they held a Limited view of the atonement in language even more specific than that employed by Augustine himself. As Phil Johnson, the curator of the on-line Hall of Church History has taught:

Theodorette of Cyrus… lived in 393 to 466. He wrote this about Hebrews 9:27-28. He said, quote: “It should be noted, of course, that Christ bore the sins of many, not all, and not all came to faith. So He removed the sins of the believers only.” Ambrose, the great writer, who lived 339-397, said this: “Although Christ suffered for all, yet He suffered for us particularly, because He suffered for the Church.” And Jerome, 347-420, a contemporary of Augustine, he wrote this about Matthew 20:28, Jerome said: “He does not say that He gave His life for all but for many, that is, for all those who would believe.” [Phil Johnson, “The Nature of the Atonement: Why and For Whom Did Christ Die?Shepherds’ Conference (2003)]

From Augustine to the Reformation:

Prospero, a student of Augustine’s teaching, taught that “though it is right to say that the Saviour was crucified for the redemption of the entire world, because He truly took our human nature and because all men were lost in the first man, yet it may also be said that He was crucified only for those who were to profit by His death” [Godfrey, 135.] Though Reformed theologians may object to the word “redemption,” Prospero’s statement does come close to the ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect alone’ distinction made at the Synod of Dort.

As is well documented, the 9th century monk Gottschalk gave the most thorough expression of anyone prior to the Reformation regarding Limited atonement. Gottschalk argued for the doctrine that would come to be known as “Limited atonement” based on God’s sovereignty in salvation and a consideration of the united purpose of God’s election and the work of Christ on the Cross- Christ died for those (and only those) whom God elected.

The Reformation

Contrary to Dr. Allen’s statement, Martin Luther did teach Limited atonement. Limited atonement is a direct implication of his arguments in Bondage of the Will and is explicitly taught in his Lectures on Romans.

Regarding Romans 9:20-21, Luther wrote:

“God will have all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), and he gave his Son for us men, and he created man for the sake of eternal life. And likewise: Everything is there for man’s sake and he is there for God’s sake in order that he may enjoy him, etc. But this objection [to God’s sovereignty in salvation] and others like it can just as easily be refuted as the first one: because all these sayings must be understood only with respect to the elect [emphasis in original], as the apostle says in 2 Timothy 2:10, “All for the elect.” Christ did not die for absolutely all, for he says: “This is my blood which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20) and “for many” (Mark 14:24)- he did not say: for all- “to the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). [Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, translated and edited by Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), 252.]

In the above statements, Luther makes an argument identical to that which will be maintained later by the “Calvinists.” It is certain, however, that Lutheran doctrinal statements today have abandoned their founder’s teaching on this matter and that the Lutheran denomination rejects the Reformed doctrine of Limited atonement.

But what about John Calvin? As with Augustine, Calvin’s position on this doctrine is a matter of historical dispute. For example, when discussing Calvin’s view on the extent of the atonement in relation to the later Amyraldian controversy within Calvinism, historians Roger Nicole and Brian Armstrong come to opposite conclusions. [Godfrey, 137; Roger Nicole, Moyse Amyraut (1596-1664) and the Controversy on Universal Grace, First Phase (1634-1637), Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1966; Brian Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy, Madison, 1969.] There are reasons, however, to believe that Calvin held to a Limited atonement position. In examining 1 Timothy 2:6, Calvin gave a “Calvinistic” explanation for the meaning of “all;” drawing upon the context of 1 Timothy 2:1, Calvin asserted: “The universal term all must always be referred to classes: of men, and not to persons; as if he had said, that not only Jews, but Gentiles also, not only persons of humble rank, but princes also, were redeemed by the death of Christ.” Similar to Augustine, Calvin argued that 1 John 2:2 refers only to the Church as it is scattered across the face of the earth. Of this verse, Calvin wrote: “the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church.”

Concerning Zwingli, there are a few statements in his writings that tend to affirm Dr. Allen’s assertion that he held to an unlimited or universal view regarding the extent of the atonement. For example, Zwingli wrote: “Christ who through his death has offered himself to God for the sins of all who ever been and ever shall be.” [Zwingli, Exposition and Basis of the Conclusions or Articles Published by Huldrych Zwingli, 29 January 1523, Vol 1, (Pickwick Publications), 94.] And: “If then Christ by his death has reconciled all people who are on earth when he poured out his blood on the cross and if we are on earth, then our sins, too, and those of everyone who has ever lived, have been recompensed by the one death and offering.” [Zwingli, Exposition and Basis of the Conclusions or Articles Published by Huldrych Zwingli, 29 January 1523, Vol 1, (Pickwick Publications), 97.]

For the sake of time I will not give discussion of Cranmer and Latimer, except to concede that in the brief time I devoted to researching these men, the facts seemed to indicate that they did hold to an unlimited or universal view.

The sub-Reformation period:

Dr. Allen opined: “Theodore Beza was probably the first Reformer to explicitly teach limited atonement.” Though it is false that Beza was the first Reformer to explicitly teach this doctrine, as our look at Luther has shown, it is certain that of those in his generation, Beza did give the fullest expression to this doctrine. Concerning Beza’s teaching on Limited atonement, Godfrey wrote:

The benefit of the atonement properly belongs to the elect alone. Beza’s concern was to stress the efficacious nature of the atonement. Salvation was not made possible in Christ; it was made actual for the elect of God. [Godfrey, 141]

When Dr. Allen said, “Theodore Beza was probably the first Reformer to explicitly teach limited atonement, and then follows the Synod of Dort,” The impression may have been given that virtually no-one between Beza and the Synod of Dort taught Limited atonement. But this impression would be false, as it is evident that the Reformed branch of Protestantism generally accepted Limited atonement, and this acceptance eventually formed the basis for the affirmation at Dort. For example, Italian Reformed theologian Peter Martyr Vermigli, in discussing the purpose of the Cross, wrote that God gave His Son over to a shameful death, “to the end he might rid his elect from sinne.” [Godfrey, 146; Peter Martyr Vermigli, The Common Places of the most famous and renowned Divine Doctor Peter Martyr (London, 1583), 607.] Likewise, English Reformed theologian William Perkins wrote, “But if we consider that actuall efficacy, the price is payd in the counsell of God, and as touching the event, onely for those which are elected and predestinated.” [Godfrey, 148; William Perkins, The Works of that Famous and Worthy Minister of Christ in the University of Cambridge, M. William Perkins, Vol. 2 (London, 1631), 609.]

In his assertion, “Universal atonement was the accepted viewpoint even of Reformed theology until about the year 1600,” Dr. Allen makes a great mistake in citing the Heidelberg Catechism as evidence. This is a great mistake because Caspar Olevianus and Zacharius Ursinus authored this Catechism, and we have statements from Olevianus and Ursinus directly asserting their belief in Limited atonement. Olevianus wrote:

God out of the whole of fallen mankind chose those whom He had eternally decreed to receive in Christ as His children. For their sake He sent His Son into the world, so that for the sake of their blessedness He took flesh… [Godfrey, 148; Quoted by Roger Nicole, “The Doctrine of the Definite Atonement in the Heidelberg Catechism,” The Gordon Review, 7 (1964), 143. From Wezen des Genadeverbonds 2:4 (Overborgt: Brill, 1862), 208.]

In the Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism written by Ursinus and his student David Pareus, the specific question “Did Christ Die For All?” was answered with the following:

But he willed to die for the elect alone as touching the efficacy of his death, that is, he would not only sufficiently merit grace and life for them alone, but also effectually confers these upon them, grants faith, and the Holy Spirit, and brings it to pass that they apply to themselves, by faith, the benefits of his death, and so obtain for themselves the efficacy of his merits. [Godfrey, 149; Zacharius Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, translated by G.W. Williard (Grand Rapids, MI, 1954), 221-223.]

“…and then follows the Synod of Dort.”


The reader will notice that this is the longest historical discussion I have ever offered on Strange This is because while studying the writings of various theologians may be helpful in clarifying the teaching of Scripture, the biblical text itself is our final authority and sufficient to inform Christians of what we are to believe. So we at SBF prefer to focus on examining and illustrating what the Bible teaches. However, Dr. Allen forced this issue with his statements concerning Historical Theology in which he sought to depict “Calvinists” as teaching some strange and (relatively) new doctrine. An examination of Dr. Allen’s statement has led to at least the following two conclusions:

  1. Many of Dr. Allen’s assertions are false or misleading.
  2. As in the Church today, many of the great Christian theologians throughout history have held to the doctrine of Limited atonement.
Explore posts in the same categories: Doctrinal Issues

5 Comments on “Limited Atonement in Historical Theology”

  1. When Dr. Allen made the similar claims about Calvin, he did what is often done with Scripture. He took quotes out of both the immediate context and the context of Calvin’s many other writings. I posted on it at SBC Today and they deleted it. Granted it was a bit harsh, but Dr. Allen was the first to throw the gauntlet by claiming that those who teach limited atonement are prestidigitators. It is unfortunate that this templated history of theology is going to be the eclipse of reality in the minds of SBC pewsitters who have been dumbed down by the same people that are now hawking this propaganda.

  2. Pregador27 Says:

    Great post. It would be good for those who sat under this lecture to read this. The balance of perspective would be beneficial.

  3. Pat McGee Says:

    Great post. Dr. Allen’s credibility took a hit here.

  4. […] [Continued from the post Limited Atonement in Historical Theology.] […]

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