Part 5 of my review of “For Calvinism” by Michael Horton responds to his chapter on atonement (the L in TULIP stands for Limited Atonement). Horton prefers “Particular Redemption” and says the Reformed Faith believes that, “Christ’s death is sufficient for the whole world, but secured the redemption of the elect.” At face value, I don’t necessarily have any problem with that definition (of course, Horton and I wouldn’t agree about the theological meaning of “secured” or “elect”). But his application is pretty haunting (Jesus intended to die just for certain people).
Horton wants to talk about atonement theories here (HOW does Christ connect the elect to God?). Calvinists are known for their allegiance to the penal substitution theory of the atonement (we deserve punishment for our sins, but Christ took the punishment as our substitute). Horton admits that this theory is at the heart of Reformed theology, but he also wants to be clear that the other theories have merit as well. Christ’s saving work “cannot be reduced” to just one theory.
He speaks favorably of recapitulation theory (Christ’s entire life serves as a re-start for humanity… Christ is the 2nd Adam). He also notes the truth behind Christus Victor models (though he fears they are too often defended as alternatives to penal substitution). Anselm’s satisfaction theory receives a mixed review (true that God has been offended by sin, but it’s His justice and not so much His dignity at stake). Moral influence theory (That Christ’s simply sets a good example for us to follow) is rebuked for not taking sin seriously enough. Nor does he have anything good to say about Hugo Grotius and the governmental theory (that the New Covenant brought a new government with lower standards, allowing us to succeed in keeping them).
In the end, Horton believes there is some truth in all the theories discussed: “Reformed theology has always encouraged a richer and more integrated understanding of Christ’s saving work that encompasses his incarnation, obedient life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection. Christ’s sacrificial love is also an example for us to imitate and establishes God’s moral government.” He simply thinks penal substitution is at the core of the atonement (I tend to think recapitulation is).
For Horton, there are three possibilities: Christ’s death saved everyone (Universalism), Christ’s death made salvation possible (Arminianism), or Christ’s death saved some people (Calvinism). He says Universalism should be dismissed out of hand. The Calvinistic view is superior to the Arminian view, he says, because in it Christ’s death actually (rather than merely potentially) saves people and because in it Christ is the focus (rather than the believer’s choice). I think both of these arguments are insignificant. Arminians don’t deny that Christ’s death “actually” saves them. It is certainly not their “choice” which saves them, the choice only gives them access to the saving power of His death. And whether we focus on Christ or self is a matter of volition too.
Horton admits that the Bible sometimes makes it sound like God loves and died for the whole world, but we are supposed to take that not to mean every single individual, but individuals from every part of the world. Jesus died for all kinds of people, not every person. He died for the world, not just the Jews. To use Horton’s own words from the previous chapter, though, I think “this view is to be faulted not for what it affirms but for what it denies.”
It was a bit of a strange chapter, to be honest. Why so much discussion of the different theories of the atonement (especially since Horton thinks they've all got some truth in them). Was this a way to avoid focusing on the brute fact that, in Calvinism, no matter HOW the atonement works... it was only meant to work for a limited amount (or particular group) of people?