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Limited Atonement — An interview with Lee Gatiss (part 2)

[Editor’s note: To read part 1 of this interview, click here.]

I (Lucas Bradburn) had the pleasure recently of interviewing Lee Gatiss, Director of Church Society and Editor of The NIV Proclamation Bible (Hodder). Lee is also Review Editor of the journal Churchman, and Series Editor of The Reformed Evangelical Anglican Library. He has studied history and theology at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and trained for Anglican ministry at Oak Hill (London). He has served in several Anglican churches including St Helen’s, Bishopsgate and the Church Society Trust parish of St Botolph’s, Barton Seagrave. Lee is also Adjunct Lecturer in Church History at Wales Evangelical School of Theology and the author of many books, articles, and reviews. One of his most recent books is For Us and Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry.

As I read through the historical section of your study, I was surprised to see how nuanced Reformed theologians have been on the issue of Limited Atonement. For example, Charles Hodge is quoted as saying that Calvinists “do not deny that Christ died for all men. What they deny is that He died equally, and with the same design, for all men.” Now some have suggested that this indicates that Hodge and other Calvinists did not truly hold to the doctrine of Limited Atonement as defined by modern five-point Calvinists. What do you make of this assertion?

It’s easy to caricature. Who, for example, are “modern five-point Calvinists”? The people you have in mind when you read that phrase are almost certainly not the ones I think of. So labels can be slippery. Even “five-point Calvinists” is not a very happy phrase. Do Calvinists only believe in 5 points, spelling out the word TULIP? Do they not also believe the solas of the Reformation, the divinity of Christ, the Reformed doctrine of the sacraments, and so on? What is the “standard definition” of limited atonement which “Hodge and others” are falling short of?

If there is such a standard, maybe the Canons of the Synod of Dort might be it? But they are far more nuanced and careful than many headline writers and sloganeers today might allow. They are still clear though. And I think Hodge, if he is not a TULIP Calvinist by some people’s reckoning is certainly a Dortian.  If I may say, it is often ignorance of historical theology that leads people to make such erroneous sweeping assertions. That’s why I like church history, because it teaches me to be more humble than I would otherwise be, and not to rush into dramatic generalizations which are easily refuted by anyone who actually reads old books!

You mention that the Lombardian expression that Christ’s death was “sufficient for all but efficient for the elect” has not been universally received by Calvinists. Why do you think this is the case? Do you consider this a helpful or unhelpful way of talking about the extent of the atonement?

Medieval big guns like Lombard and Aquinas used this distinction. They may have been trying to avoid the clamor which surrounded the more clearly particularizing doctrine of some “Carolingian Calvinists” such as Gottschalk of Orbais. Calvin was OK with it, but thought it wasn’t relevant where others would often invoke it. Neither the Genevans nor the British at the Synod of Dort used it. It doesn’t say anything about intention, which is the big thing (as I said earlier), and even Arminius was happy with it!

If you thought everybody was elect, you could still sign up to “sufficient for all but efficient for the elect.” So it can be used as a summary, in a blurry, lets-not-get-too-precise sort of way. I can see why people might want to use this formula and stop there. But it doesn’t actually say much about the real question of limited atonement in a careful or really clear way. That might be a good thing for some people, but others will want to pray and press for further light from the Scriptures before resting on this convenient tradition.

In your discussion of Amyraut’s view of the extent of the atonement you suggest that modern defenders of five-point Calvinism ought to talk more favorably about the multiple-intentions view than they typically do. What did you mean by this?

What I said was that the generally Calvinist substructure of many varieties of “hypothetical universalism” ought to be more widely acknowledged. It’s a form of Calvinism, a type of Reformed theology. Those who don’t favour such a “middle way” view might accuse “Amyraldians” of being on a slippery slope to Arminianism, but that’s often unfair. If it is unfair, then advocates of such positions need to talk more often than they sometimes do about the other “points of Calvinism” which they do affirm, such as unconditional election or the preservation of the saints.

What I’m worried about, otherwise, is that one generation of people who are basically Reformed, but who don’t like particular redemption for some reason, will only end up teaching the next generation to disapprove of Calvinism as a whole. Or to put it another way, if you regularly hear people you look up to using Arminian arguments against limited atonement but never preaching TULIP, it’s not going to be long before you start to find Arminian arguments on other things more congenial, and begin to sneer at Reformed theology, even if your mentors were usually more subtle.

As far as the multiple-intentions view of the atonement is concerned, what do you believe is the fundamental biblical problem with this view?

I think it’s a textless doctrine. I have not seen a persuasive biblical case for saying that the Father sent the Son to both save his people and also make other people savable. It could be that I just haven’t read enough. But where would one go to in order to ground this idea in the Bible, which seems to me to reveal a God with a sovereign, focused, definite plan? The multiple-intentions view seems to be more of a convenient systematic invention than a biblically-derived necessity, and creates more theological problems than it solves. But I may be wrong, and am happy to be corrected from the unerring scriptures.

Why do you think that the doctrine of limited atonement is so despised by many within the Protestant church? Why is this doctrine so often viewed differently from the other doctrines of Calvinism?

The name doesn’t help. Who wants to limit God’s redemption? Being converted to Christ and filled with his Spirit unfolds us as people; it stops us being curved in on ourselves and pours the majestic love of God into our puny hearts. With such a change, with that kind of new blood pumping into our veins, we tend to magnify everything about God. So limited atonement sounds like something penny-pinching, mean, narrow, and cold — something to be avoided.

The actual doctrine is nothing of the kind of course: it is heart-warming, beautiful, romantic even, and joyous, and it spurs us on to seek Christ’s lost sheep wherever they may be found. It animated the great evangelists of the past, such as Whitefield and Spurgeon, and it is biblically satisfying to inquiring minds who search the Scriptures. I like to think of it as personal, intentional, effective atonement. But PIE is as unhappy an acronym as TULIP, even if the thought is more readily embraced.

Caricatures don’t help either, and people on all sides of this theological debate often forget that whatever their view of the extent of the atonement, Christ certainly did die for their believing brothers and sisters who passionately disagree with them on this issue!  I’m also not sure that the Reformed doctrine of the atonement is any more hated than other aspects of the Calvinist doctrine of salvation such as unconditional election. That has a better name, it’s true (we like things to be unconditional!), but it is equally reviled by a modern world obsessed with its liberty of consumerism and the idol of self-determination.

I thought you made a great point in the practical section that the doctrine of limited atonement, properly understood, does not stand against a healthy and robust understanding of the necessity of evangelism. In fact, rather than detract from evangelism, limited atonement provides the proper basis for successful (and hopeful) evangelism. Can you briefly explain to our readers how this is the case?

Christ will have the prize for which he died — an inheritance of people out of every nation, tribe, and tongue. So the church’s task is to get out there and search for the lost sheep in every corner of the globe. But it’s not a hopeless, fruitless task. Those sheep will be found. Evangelism is not a pointless exercise — and all because we know that Christ died for a certain number of people according to the definite and sovereign plan of God. Not a drop of his most precious blood will be wasted. And we can offer people an effective, completed, perfect redemption — as opposed to the hollow, superficial mere possibility of salvation on yet another performance-conditioned treadmill.

Part of the misunderstanding about limited atonement and evangelism is that some people have elevated a particular evangelistic technique into a shibboleth. I have been told by some people that they couldn’t possibly believe in limited atonement because they have to be able to say to everyone, “Christ died for you.” They use this phrase in their evangelistic talks and sermons, and plead with people to come to Jesus because he died for them. There may be reasons why this kind of evangelistic appeal (based, it seems, on the moral influence theory of the atonement) may have been pragmatically useful in some contexts, and I explore those in the book. But I have yet to find the speech in Acts where the apostles used this phrase in their evangelism. It is a textless doctrine.

I have been hearing about the forthcoming book on Limited Atonement From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway) in which you contribute a chapter on “The Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement.” Tell us a little bit about this book and when can our readers expect to see this book hit the market?

It’s been a labour of love for Jonny Gibson, my desk-buddy at Tyndale House in Cambridge, and his brother David, for several years. My book is 130 pages or so, and attempts to cover Bible, doctrine, history and pastoral application of limited atonement, and the volume the Gibsons have edited does the same — but supersized! It will be a monster of a book, with contributions from the great and the good of the Reformed world doing in-depth exegesis, solid theology, careful church history, and sensitive pastoral application. It’s a huge privilege to have been asked to contribute to what I think will be the definitive book on the subject for decades to come. It’s because there was nothing like it that I dropped my small mite into the treasury with For Us and For Our Salvation. I hope people still buy mine; but From Heaven He Came and Sought Her will be the academic gold standard, the book that anyone touching this doctrine in the future will need to reckon with and engage.

I noticed that you recently edited two volumes on the sermons of George Whitefield. Can you tell us a little bit about these books and why Whitefield was such an important figure in church history?

A few years ago while I was writing another book called The True Profession of the Gospel: Augustus Toplady and Reclaiming our Reformed Foundations (Latimer Trust, 2010), I came to see just how important George Whitefield was to Reformed Evangelicals, especially Anglicans. Toplady was glowing in his praise for the man, so I wanted to read as much of Toplady’s hero as I could while I was researching him. I looked around for modern editions of Whitefield’s sermons. Banner of Truth had done a small selection of half a dozen, but that was about it. So being in Cambridge, I realised I had access to almost anything I could want in the libraries here (and Tyndale House even has a set of Whitefield’s Works in the Common Room!), and I set about making a new edition of all his authorised, published sermons. If no-one else would do it, why not do it myself?

I lightly edited it to update punctuation and orthography, and added some explanatory notes here and there, as well as chasing up relevant historical information on each sermon where I could. It was my “insomniac project” for a year or so (I don’t always sleep well, so I sometimes get a lot done in the dead hours of the night, when I’m not fearfully meditating on the last clause of Psalm 127:2). I added an introduction and offered it to Church Society in the UK for publication and they snapped it up (I now work for them!). Crossway came to me within a few months wanting to publish it in the States and elsewhere, which was an unexpected joy. The most satisfying moment for me was presenting a copy to one of my heroes, Jim Packer, who has written so well on Whitefield himself, when he was visiting Cambridge.

Whitefield is important because he was a Reformed Evangelical Anglican celebrity. He took Reformed theology and preached and popularized it. He led the Evangelical awakening on both sides of the Atlantic. He maintained his Anglican credentials (unlike Wesley, who abandoned them, and despised Reformed theology), and loved the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, often quoting them in his sermons. And he was what Professor Packer calls “God’s barnstormer,” a huge celebrity with a big personality and an even bigger voice. He also, incidentally, believed in both covenant theology and limited atonement — but none of this stopped him being the most prolific and fruitful evangelist. Glory be.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and you can follow his blog at

Lucas Bradburn is book review editor in pastoral theology for Credo Magazine. He is an M.Div. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He is married to Allison and they have two children, Anna and Benjamin. Lucas blogs at Guarding the Truth.

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