Saturday, November 17, 2007

Alan Clifford on John Owen's Commercialism

Since I have been discussing limited atonement in view of the distinction between a commercial satisfaction and a penal satisfaction, I thought this quote from Clifford on John Owen's view of limited atonement would be good to include. This is particularly important since the "stock" Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement today is basically taken from Owen's thought. Most Calvinists of today, even if they don't know it, rely heavily on his logic and his same assumptions.

When Owen comes to discuss the concept of 'satisfaction', he is well aware that , unlike redemption and reconcilliation, 'satisfaction is not found in the Latin or English Bible applied to the death of Christ'. However, he rightly insists that there are 'other words in the original languages' which are equivalent in meaning. Consequently, he employs all the 'commercialist' implications of Anselm's theory of the atonement, expounding it in his rigidly particularist manner. Thus sin and guilt are given strictly quantitative connotations. Observing commercial metaphors in the Bible, Owen argues that man is the debtor, sin is the debt, the obligation to pay is demanded by the law, God is the creditor, and the ransom is paid to the offended party on behalf of the offender by Christ. This is the conceptual framework by which Owen establishes his doctrine of limited atonement: 'the debt thus paid was not for this or that sin, but for all the sins of all those for whom and in whose name this payment was made.' He asks, with rigorous logic, 'If the full debt of all be paid to the utmost extent of the obligation, how comes it to pass that so many are shut up in prison to eternity, never freed from their debts?' In other words, if Christ has died for all, any any perish, then God is demanding double payment for sin. Therefore Christ did not die for all, but for the elect alone; his sufferings were commensurate with 'the whole punishment due to... all the sins of all those that he suffered and offered himself for.'

Many orthodox Calvinist theologians have objected to the commercial theory of the atonement, including William Cunningham, Charles Hodge, and Robert L. Dabney. Others have drastically modified their Calvinism because of their objections, such as Joseph Bellamy, Andrew Fuller, A. H. Strong, Ralph Wardlaw, Albert Barnes, and Thomas Chalmers. The general criticism of the theory is that it overworks the analogy between sins and debts; it fails to realize that 'analogy is not identity'. After all, strictly speaking sin is crime, not debt; it is guilt, not actual failure in financial obligation. In short, the theory fails to distinguish between commercial and ethical categories. Excessive application of commercial concepts to the atonement treats sin in quantitative rather than qualitative terms.

Notwithstanding the justice of these criticism, it is to Owen's credit that he saw the commercial theory as the raison d'etre of the doctrine of limited atonement. Unlike others, he realized that the entire particularist edifice stands or falls by it. Indeed, as was noted in the previous chapter, it clearly explains why Owen modified the sufficiency-efficiency distinction. In reality, since the atonement provides only a limited satisfaction for the sins of the elect, it is only sufficient for those for whom it is efficient; thus the 'credit facilities' of the gospel are only available for the elect. As we have seen, this consideration poses difficulties for Owen's doctrines of common grace and the free offer of the gospel.

Had Richard Baxter been aware of the uneasy alliance between the doctrines of common grace and a limited satisfaction in Owen's writings, he might have exposed Owen's embryonic hypercalvinism more readily.


This excerpt is from pages 126-127 of Clifford's book, Atonement and Justification. Notice the following things:

1. As I have indicated, Clifford notes that Owen's doctrine of limited atonement rests heavily, if not entirely, upon commercial categories. The whole "double-jeopardy" argument falls apart if you look at the satisfaction of Christ from outside of Owen's commercial categories. With a penal satisfaction, for example, there is a very clear distinction between satisfaction made and satisfaction applied. Unless or until it is applied, no sinner receives any legal benefits, and thus God is not unjust at all to punish him for his sins, since the penal satisfaction has not been counted to him (what we call "justification").

2. Clifford says that Owen modified the "sufficiency-efficiency" distinction. The death of Christ becomes really only sufficient for whom it is efficient. This marks a departure from much of classical Reformed and Reformation thought, which taught that Christ's death was sufficient for all but efficient for the elect only. The main issue here is that you lose the ground of the universal offer of the Gospel (and the warrant of faith, too, I think). There isn't actually anything available or applicable to all, and thus there is nothing really to "offer" except to the elect. There are only 'credit facilities' for them. Owen's understanding of "sufficiency" dealt solely with the intrinsic value of Christ's payment, which is not what the original formula meant. Owen's sufficiency was basically hypothetical -it would be sufficient for you, if you were elect.

3. Clifford calls Owen's doctrine "embryonic hypercalvinism." This sounds harsh, but I believe it is accurate. It is my opinion that the hypercalvinism, especially in English Calvinism, grew in large part with Owen's thought on issues like this. I don't think it had the theological grounds to exist in the Calvinism of John Calvin, himself. In fact, if you take Owen's commercialist particularism through, logically, I believe you end up no free offer of the Gospel at all and only "good news" for those you think are elect, somehow. It is great that Owen still affirmed common grace and the free offer of the Gospel -I just believe that he totaly forfeited the theological grounding for these doctrines (such as a true general sufficiency in the satisfaction of Christ) in his doctrine of limited atonement, which future generations within high and hyper-calvinism ran with.

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