Recently, the theological blog-o-sphere has been in an uproar over comments made by Liberty University's Jerry Falwell wherein he suggested that Limited Atonement theory (held by many within the Reformed camp) is a heterodox theological perspective.

I will not attempt to defend Falwell's statements, for there has been no ecumenical determination concerning particular views of the atonement. Therefore, it is not possible to make definitive statements about the orthodoxy or heterodoxy of particular views of the atonement (this, of course, requires a fair bit of qualification, but I will not pursue that here).

Although Falwell has over-stated the issue, I still believe that a very strong case can be made against the philosophical tenability of Limited Atonement theory. Therefore, it is to this discussion that I devote this post.

The most basic premise of LA is that Christ's sacrifice can, and must only be understood as efficacious for the salvation of those for whom it is offered. As traditional Christian belief eschews any notion of universalism (in that all will eventually be reconciled to the divine), LA presses that Christ's sacrifice is made only for those who are eventually reconciled to God, for if it were made for those who do not experience ultimate reconciliation, the necessity of efficacy would be undermined.

That most Christians would balk at such a notion is not surprising, for LA is only capable of existing within the framework of a very specific set of philosophical matrices. Within Reformed theology (the most fervent advocates of LA), the identity of the objects of atonement is specifically premised on the location of these same objects' "chosenness" within the eternal will of God. That is, atonement can only be spoken of as being offered on behalf of those whom God has, from all of eternity, purposed (according to the eternal decrees of God) to save. As these individuals have been chosen by God from the farthest reaches of eternity to be saved, so shall they be saved immutably and irrevocably because Christ's atonement is made for them, and only for them. It is this group of the "elect," then, of whose identity the Scriptures testify in claiming that Christ came for "all." Not all humans without qualification, but only those who have been chosen from all of eternity, by the unchanging purposes of God, will be saved, and that without fail.

On the surface, there is a particular logic to LA. After all, it seems to offer a very "strong" view of the efficacy of atonement (I would definitely argue about this point, but that will have to wait for another post), for Christ's sacrifice is not "wasted" on those who ultimately reject God. Moreover, it solves nicely the problem of how those for whom Christ died could end up not being reconciled to God: in light of LA theory, no such possible scenario could attain reality, for it is impossible that Christ would die for someone who would not be reconciled to God (for in such a scenario, Christ's sacrifice would be "wasted").

However, if one pushes past the veneer of "logical consistency" which Reformed theology attempts to countenance in its theological formulations, an entirely untenable philsophical matrix is seen to exist. Most specifically is the very identification of Christ's "limited" atonement with those whom God has eternally decreed to save.

Let us consider this for a moment. If God has, from all of eternity, determined precisely those whom God is pleased to save; and that this decision is based not upon "foreknowledge" of these persons' desire to be reconciled to God, but rather on the basis of pure, divine fiat; then all means and ends of their salvation are necessarily determined by God. If this is true, however, then one must question the primal need for atonement in the first place. After all, if God has decreed from all of eternity the means and ends of the elect's salvation down to the most minute of circumstances, upon what basis is the necessity of atonement established? Has not God irrevocably determined their salvation, and decreed that the same should attain without fail? As the advocate of Limited Atonement must necessarily answer in the affirmative, the question remains as to the propriety of the atonement.
The detractor may respond that the necessity of atonement is premised upon the sinfulness of human persons. Granted. However, if God has eternally ordained, without qualification, all that comes to pass, then the very sinfulness of human persons–including the elect–must be primally located within the eternal decrees of the divine. But if this is so, one must necessarily question why God would decree that the elect, whose salvation has been determined from all of eternity by divine fiat, should enter into sinfulness in the first place, thereby necessitating atonement. Why not rather simply decree that those whose salvation is determined irrevocably should remain immune from sin, or at least remain unmarked by its stain?

If one is to follow the logic of Limited Atonement through to its ultimate end, one must ultimately place an incredibly awkward contradiction within the will and ontology of God. If God has eternally willed the salvation of individuals based upon the fiat of divine decree; and if God has eternally and concomitantly willed that their salvation should proceed through the punishment of Godself in the person of Christ; one is left with a serious neurosis within the Godhead. Rather than displaying kindness and reconciliation for humanity in the cross, Christ's death is merely the attainment of the final and eternal resolution of a serious dysfunction within the divine psychology whereby God would decree contradictory realities (the eternal, irrevocable salvation of the elect, and their subsequent fall into sin and need of atonement) which could only be ultimately resolved through the chastisement of Godself.

But most importantly, what is strikingly missing from Limited Atonement theory is an actual resolution to the problem of human sinfulness. Rather than dealing with the issue of human emnity towards God, Limited Atonement theory merely continues the epi-drama which the underlying conception of unconditional election based upon divine decree has been playing out. As before, this form of atonement deals exclusively with a resolution and reconciliation within God's own person and psychology, for it is the means by which God (who has decreed the contradictory election of those eternally chosen to be sinners) comes to terms with said contradiction and finds a divine solution that is in keeping with the caprice of the original decreetals. In short, humans remail fundamentally unchanged in their orientation towards God by Christ's cross; rather, an inventive theological convention is enacted whereby the eternal vaccillation within the will and ontology of God concerning the election and damnation of human persons is finally resolved.