A few weeks ago, I posted a discussion concerning the limitations of Penal Substitutionary Atonement theology, arguing that this theological perspective ultimately fails to attain to a philosophically meaningful conception of atonement in that, on the basis of its very methodology, it neglects to answer the primal question of atonement, e.g., that which occurs within humanity that humanity might be reconciled to God. This week, I simply wish to share a few brief thoughts about a very related concept: Limited Atonement.

One of the major impetuses for Limited Atonement, admittedly, is guarding against the danger of universalism. That is, how does one approach the discussion of the benefits and efficacy of Christ's atonement without devolving into unorthodox beliefs concerning the ultimate and unqualified reconciliation of all things to God in the eschaton? In many ways, Limited Atonement theology bypasses this crisis by arguing for a very strict and "limited" range of the efficacy of atonement; that is, Christ's atonement is only directed towards and efficacious on behalf of those for whom Christ dies. Within the complex of Limited Atonement theology, "those for whom Christ died" is understood as those who have been eternally ordained for salvation based exclusively upon the fiat of divine will.
To advocates of Limited Atonement theology, such an identification of the elect in regards to the atoning work of Christ is convenient, for not only does it bypass the unsavory danger of delving into advocacy of universalism (of which they charge their antagonists, BTW), but moreover it provides a very definite demarcation of the bounds and meaningfulness of Christ's atoning work, its impetus and ultimate termination by locating the same exclusively within the salvation of the elect. On the basis of the methodological assumptions of Limited Atonement theology, any expansion of Christ's work is anathema for, as the proponents of Limited Atonement theology will argue, one must necessarily advocate either a wholesale universalism or argue that Christ's atoning work is "wasted" based upon its inefficacy in bringing to salvation those who are not elect (by the divine fiat of God, ironically) and will not ultimately share in eternal reconciliation with God.

Interestingly enough, however, the advocate of Limite Atonement theology is apparently blind to the necessary "waste" which they must assign to Christ's atoning work by identifying its exclusivity with those who have been eternally ordained by God to be saved. Let us walk through this conclusion very briefly.

First, the advocate of LA must argue that the identity of those to whom Christ's atonement is directed is premised upon the eternal decision of God to the same end. This joining of limited atonement and election is primally necessary, for otherwise–by these advocates' own claims–Christ's atonement would be wasted on those who are not ultimately justified and reconciled to God. As only the eternal decision of God can guarantee the actualization of such an end, so must it be the impetus for atonement from beginning to end.

But let us not miss the underlying necessity of determinism. If Christ's atonement must apply only to those who are ultimately reconciled to God, then it is absolutely necessary that God decree from eternity that the precise identification of these persons ordained to salvation will, in fact, attain. One must seriously question, then, the purpose of atonement entirely. If God has from eternity ordained the identity of those to whom Christ's atoning work will be applied, as well as the minute circumstances by which this application will inevitably attain, so must God have equally and eternally ordained the circumstances and privation that create the necessity of atonement. In another way, if God has eternally ordained the identity of those to whom Christ's atonining benefits will be meted, so has God eternally ordained the reasons these same persons require atonement.

Ultimately, rather than preventing the "wasting" of Christ's atoning work, Limited Atonement completely undermines the power and necessity of atonement en toto by placing the entire drama and crisis of atonement within the will and ontology of God. If LA is followed to its logical conclusion, the only reason that atonement is necessary in the first place is because God has ordained its necessity by virtue of identifying those to whom Christ's atoning work will be applied. That is, by eternally decreeing the identification of the elect, God has necessirily created the circumstances–out of the good pleasure of divine will, no less–by which atonement will be required. In this way, Christ's atonement is in fact "wasted," for the necessity of atonement is based not on something external to the will and ontology of God, but is rather essential with the same. Atonement, in such a scenario, could be just as easily acheived by the alteration of the primal divine decreetals. Its phenomenological actualization in the brutal death of Christ can then only be attributed to a intrinsic violence within the will and ontology of God that would decree such an end when no external power compelled the form of the decree initially.
What one is left with, ultimately, is a picture of an incredible vaccilation within the will and being of God as the eternal Godhead is torn between the self-negating eternal decrees of salvation and its necessary pre-requisites of sin and damnation. Moreover, what one must finally conclude is that the privation for which Christ's atonement is required is not ultimately foreign to the ontology of God, but is rather a fundamental aspect of the divine ontology by which it might form the basis for the eternal decreetals of the Godhead. That is, the only necessity for Christ's suffering is the eternal desire of the divine will that Christ should suffer for the caprice of the Godhead.