While the extent of the atonement has been debated since the Reformation it has taken on new energy recently. One of the best ways to get a handle on any difficult theological subject is to allow opposing views to be expressed by scholars who truly know, and can clearly represent their position. Hence the value of books such as this one. While there are a number of variations not covered in Perspectives, such as the commercial, eternal application, Amyraldism, and hypothetical universalism views, the editors chose to zero in on three that represent well the present theological landscape. Reformed scholar Carl Trueman presents and defends definite (or limited) atonement; Grant Osborne, the well-known Arminian theologian, lays out the general or unlimited atonement understanding; and John Hammett offers a multiple-intention view which seeks to demonstrate that Christ’s atonement had more than one intention. That is, it is both definite and universal at different points. As with all the Perspectives books, each author is given an opportunity to challenge the contributions of the others. This effectively eliminates strawmen and misrepresentation. The editor (Snoeberger) writes an excellent introduction summarizing the three views (pp. 7-16). He reminds us that the debate is often expressed as a tension between theology and exegesis (pp. 3-4; cf. pp. 57, 127, 174), whereby the definite atonement adherents, admitting that no single biblical text teaches their understanding (pp. 23, 31), fall back on theology for their proof. General atonement supporters see this as the fatal flaw to the limited system, believing that scholars such as Trueman allow their theology to trump exegesis. If Scripture is allowed the final say, definite atonement cannot stand, according to Osborne. This is where the multiple-intention position comes into play. Hammitt believes that Scripture, in fact, teaches definite atonement in places and yet general atonement in other texts. The best understanding, Hammett proclaims, is that the Bible teaches a distinction between the intent and extent. That is, the atonement is sufficient to pay for the sins of all humanity but ultimately pays for the sins of only the elect (p. 162).
All the typical arguments and pertinent biblical passages are discussed by the authors. Texts such as Hebrews 9:27, John 17, 1 John 2:2; Ephesians 2:1-3, 1 Timothy 4:10, 1 Peter 2:1 and others are interpreted in line with the different systems. Discussions concerning the meaning of “all,” “world,” total depravity, grace and “double jeopardy,” are given much attention.
The book concludes with a summary of the their views and an important encouragement to avoid causing unhealthy schism over this doctrine. In the conclusion editor Andrew Naselli suggests “ten ways to create unhealthy schism”, which is a creative and excellent way to draw this discussion to a close. As Snowberger wrote on page one, “The extent of the atonement is not the most important question of systematic theology.” And as Wayne Grudem states:
Scripture itself never singles this out as a doctrine of major importance, nor does it once make itself the subject of any explicit theological discussion. Our knowledge of the issue comes only from incidental references to it in passages whose concern is with other doctrinal or practical matters… [T]here is very little direct scriptural testimony (p. 144).
The debate over the extent of the atonement will go on, and it should. But may it be done with charity and humility.
Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement, Three Views Edited by Andrew David Naselli and Mark A. Snoeberger (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2015) 242 pp. plus XIII, paper $24.99
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher at Southern View Chapel