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Dabney and Certain Objections to Effectual Redemption

July 11, 2007

The reader may recall the last post on Dabney where he chides the strict Calvinist and complains that their “answer” (by way of limited imputation of sin upon Christ) to the Arminian challenge is not adequate. His point there was to delineate the first objection to Calvinism, and in doing so lay out the basic type of response from the strict Calvinists.

In what follows, Dabney continues to outline key challenges and problems tabled against Calvinism and particular redemption. His plan of attack here will to document a cluster of objections from non-Calvinists, and then, in reverse order, respond to them. After this he will set out his own solution against all parties, the rigid or strict Calvinists, on the one hand, and the Arminians, on the other.


The student should understand fully the ingenious pertinacity with which this line of objection is urged, and reinforced; from the command which makes it all sinners duty to believe on Christ for their own salvation; from the alleged impossibility of their reaching any appropriating faith by the Calvinistic view, and from the various warnings of Scripture, which clearly contemplate the possible destruction of one for whom Christ died. Our opponents proceed thus. God commands every man to believe on Christ. But since only an appropriating faith saves, and since God of course calls for a saving faith, and not the faith of Devils. God commands every man to appropriate Christ by his faith. But the man for whom Christ did not die has no right to appropriate Him. it would be erroneous presumption, and not faith.

This is a powerful argument. I have to be honest here, and I think Dabney would agree with me in principle. Properly speaking, if there is absolutely no provision of the expiation for all men, there can be no sincere or credible call or command to men to come to Christ. To be honest, to me such a scenario would be like holding up an empty bottle of medicine and offering it as a life-giving remedy.

I know there can be some standard objections to my incredulity. Some like Cunningham, may try to argue that sinners are only commanded to come. I, however, do not find this to capture the proper biblical dynamic here. The feast is ready, come, come you are invited, is the point of the parable in Matt 22. Cunningham thankfully is not consistent for in other places he will speak of the offer of the gospel. And of course, the offer is an offer of something, which takes back to our bottle of medicine analogy.

I know others will say the provision is available hypothetically. I will readily grant that partly works as a response. It is part of an answer, and is somewhat valid. But this is not the issue I am challenging here. My point was, if we say there is absolutely no provision, then there can be no sincere offer. I know the ‘hypothetical provision’ is one idea out there, but that is not what I am focusing on today.

And of course on the hyper side, some will say there is no offer at all. God, in some bare or raw power, simple commands repentance. The duty of man is grounded barely on this raw command. A.C. de Jong, well challenges the PRC idea that men are called to nothing. I intend to blog that at some future point.

Back to Dabney:

Again, both Roman Catholics and Arminians object that the strict Calvinistic scheme would make it necessary for a man’s mind to pass through and accept a paralogism, in order to believe unto salvation. This point may be found stated with the utmost adroitness, in the works of Bellamy, (loco citato ). He argues, if I know that Christ died only for the elect, then I must know whether I am elect, in order to be sure that He died for me. But God’s election is secret, and it is mere fanaticism to pretend that I know my own election by direct revelation. My name is nowhere set down specifically in the Bible. That book directs me to find out my election a posteriori by finding in my own graces the results of the secret decree towards me. Thus I am shut up to this sophism, in order to obey God’s command to believe. I must assume, in advance of proof, that I am elected in order to attain through faith the Christian traits, by which alone I can infer that I am elected.

Again, I have to admit that, in principle, this is a strong argument. I am not sure what to say here, because anything I say may detract from Dabney’s later response. I do not really want to pre-empt myself or Dabney. :-) It is clear that if again, there is no provision at all, for all men, then I think Bellamy’s point is spot on.

As it stands, we can all agree on the Calvinian side that one need not know his or her personal election in order to first believe upon Christ. But if we modify the argument a little. We could trim down Bellamy’s argument to this: I must know that Christ died for me, before I can be seriously called to repent and believe upon Christ. This argument does not rely on trying to first know a previous step, whether I am elect or not.

There are a couple of standard responses to this modified Bellamy-like counter. The first one which in my mind fails, the second one is better. The first would be say something like this: “Christ died for sinners ‘such as you’… therefore believe…”

I have never found this helpful. What does “such as you” mean? What happens if we take the language of Mark 10:14 (the kingdom belongs to ‘such as these’) an example of this type of speech, no one would think that the present children were not properly the direct objects of the kingdom. Right? So the phrase “such as you” is open to ambiguity. The strict Calvinist would not want his hearer to understand “such as you” in the same way we are all to obviously understand the equivalent phrase on Mark 10:14. Thus I find this coded way of speaking unsatisfactory. How is it helpful to say to a sinner something like, ‘Christ died for sinners like you, but perhaps not for you, but come to Christ, repent and believe…’ We are back to an agnosia and a leap of faith. I think Bellamy would be right to scoff at this sort of approach. And I doubt the original intent of the phrase was intended to deny any direct possible inference made by the given subjects.

The better strategy was the Boston or Marrow response which said that Christ died for you, by which they meant, the death of Christ is sufficient for you. That sufficiency was obtained for you. So we are coming back to the hypothetical sufficiency. Thus I can see no way to ground the integrity of the free offer apart from some provision for all mankind. For without this, it is impossible to credibly offer the gospel or command all to come to Christ.


The third argument is that founded on the warnings against apostasy. In Rom. 14:15, for instance, the Apostle cautions strong Christians “not to destroy, with their meat, those for whom Christ died.” Hebrews 10:29, the apostate “counts the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing.” 2 Peter 2:1, heretics “even deny the Lord that bought them.” Here, it is urged, Calvinists must either hold that some of the elect perish, or that Christ died for others than the elect.

Lectures, pp., 523-524.

Here I will say little other than, as with Dabney, it is true that Christ died for others than the elect. But as Dabney would ask, “In what sense?” To play on something Dabney says elsewhere, we can say Christ died for all, but in the sense that he died unequally for all. He died for Peter in a different sense that he died for Judas. This claim, of course, is what I will demonstrate from Dabney later.


7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2007 12:33 am


    What do you think is the foundational motivating factor that prevents many from seeing the sound reasoning in these types of arguments and thus see the necessity as Dabney did to maintain a clear biblical “universal” sense in which the work of Christ references all men in Adam, while also holding to the “special” sense towards the elect? Maybe it’s different for particular high calvinist, but I do believe there has to be a common motivation as well. Is it a sense of defending the “integrity” of the atonement itself, assuming an ipso facto securing of it’s on application? Maybe a it’s to defend an idea of God, that to posit a dual sense would somehow show Him to be inconsistent? Maybe the fear of being called or embracing what is claimed as essentially Arminian doctrine (ironically I’m thinking of Kimedonicus’ defense of limited atonement in which he defends a Calvinistic “universal” sense of the atonement to all men)? What ever it is, something has been lost of the ability of many calvinist to be balanced.

    Blessings in Christ,
    Terry W. West

  2. Flynn permalink
    July 12, 2007 9:04 am

    Hey Terry,

    Its all of the above. It would not be good to make one cause/reason the basis why so many may have problems with the Shedd-Dabney view of the atonement. I am reading Van Stam on the Saumur controversy. I am going to make a note of this on the C&C list later. van Stam is opening his work with a review of some of the extant letters back and forth. Du Moulin is not coming out of this looking very nice, nor are some of the other anti-Amyraldians.

    None of this is new to me but it once again reinforced a pattern that has displayed itself in Reformed history.

    In terms of calvinism, there have been 5 major clashes, 1) Amyraut debate, 2) the Baxter debate, 3) the Marrow debate, 4) the Fuller debate, 5) the PRC spat.

    In each case the party representing the higher side of the argument has always been the most aggressive, the most suspicious, the most intransigent, and the nastier.

    In each reaction the same basic pattern of sentiment is evident. To the higher side, the deviation was seen and portrayed as a complete departure from the gospel, the loss of “The Faith” etc.

    In most of the cases either the higher side were the ones that were real black hats (Gill and Hoeksema et al), or they were operating by faulty assumptions. Van Stam is bringing this out in the case of Du Moulin’s charges against Amyraut, Lachman brings this out in the case of John Brown of Hadow’s response to Boston et al.

    So I would say the chief problem comes from the lack of understanding the category diversity and complexity (failing to see that there are more categories than first thought of, etc), and a faulty understanding of the biblical doctrine of the expiation. Like I have said before, many have transmuted the penal satisfaction into a pecuniary satisfaction (I posted some Packer on this).

    So in the case of Fuller, Boston and and the Hoeksema debate: the common argument form from the higher side has this logic (which is common to all of them in my opinion): the category options are limited essentially to 2, and so it goes like this: It’s either A or it’s B. It can’t be B, so it has to be A.

    It’s either X or its Arminianism. It cant be Arminianism, so it has to be X. (Let X stand for whatever you want) This is why we saw all the Arminian anathemas thrown out by John Brown of Hadow, by Gill and his party. This is why the PRC issues forth this rhetoric in their mags.

    Now, no matter what the “bad guy” is in the argument, whether its pelagianism or Arminianism the basic argument is fairly well repeated throughout. This form of argument is exactly how cultists argue and the false-either or, or false dysjunction is the calling card of all rationalist thinking.

    Being aware of it, or of yourself doing it, is the most important step in working through any issue. For you must justify the limitation of categories not just assume it (begging the question and circularity)

    Btw, Do you ever get tired of the cliche and pat answers? I am thinking of the “sinners such as you” thing. Its so meaningless when you think about it. :)

    Hope that helps,

  3. July 12, 2007 11:03 pm

    You know, I can’t really work all this out, but is seems to me that a key factor is the method of thought employed.

    Typically these higher groups tend towards the more rationalistic side of things, and they very often argue from an almost mathematical approach. God wants a certain amount of redemption for an individual, and thus Christ does a certain amount of work which works out to be enough for the elect. Any more or any less would add to an inequality and thus Christ’s efficacy is impugned.

    However polished, that is typically how the argument runs.

    And of course if Christ “doesn’t do it all,” then that means we humans contribute our “works.” And so we move from a debate over logical orderings or the “extent” of the atonement to the very heart and soul of redemption. The gospel is on the line.

  4. Flynn permalink
    July 13, 2007 9:29 am

    Hey Steven,

    You are right. There are a few things to consider.

    Here is where so many do not see this. The Protestant Scholastics were engaged in a deductivist approach. This has a few aspects to it.

    Firstly, the ordo docendi is arranged logically with the correct sub-divisions. This in itself is not a problem as it is what drives Thomas’ Summa as well, and other works. But when you add the following, new things begin to happen.

    Secondly, a lapsarian hierarchy that now matches that ordo docendi hierarchy. So the redemptio-theological map now follows the same deductivist approach as the ordo docendi. This point is valid whether it is infra- or supralapsarian, because what happens is that one begins to “see” redemptive history a certain way.

    With Calvin this is the opposite. His ordo docendi in no way mirrors a lapsarian overlay. I believe this helped to safe-guard his exegesis.

    Thirdly, when you add Federalism, that is another theological schema which further mirrors the deductive schemas of the ordo docendi and lapsarian hierarchy.

    Fourthly, the exegesis is now like the caboose which is dragged along inexorably by the Lapso-Federalist engine. :-) All exegetical issues had to now be exegeted so as to be in conformity to the hierarchy. This is demonstrated clearly in Beza’s modification of Matt 23:37.

    Fifthly, the method of engaging in the exegetical process is now delimited by the deductivist a priories. Proving this takes more time, but essentially a lot of critical exegesis works on this line. We have a verse, there are two proposed ways of reading it (A or B). B is denied, given the hierarchies, therefore it must be A. This way of exegeting is prevalent in Owen and Turretin and others. So here is a classic and easy one. “World.” There are (allegedly) two options proposed. There is the (allegedly) Calvinist option and then there is the Arminian option. And that is defined as: its either ‘all the elect’ (A), or, it is ‘all who have lived, live and will live’ (B). It cant be B (normally some equivocal counter-factuals are adduced), so it must be A. That is what many call exegesis, when it is not.

    So from the level of the ultra theoretical, right down to the doing of exegesis, a strict deductivist approach is utilised.

    Taken with all its parts, the system is very tight and has a lot of what is called explanatory power. But the problem is, once you see through some of the methodological fallacies, it begins to unravel. My belief is that most of us are not aware of the way we have been doing exegesis within our post-Calvin tradition.

    Some out there disagree with me on this. That is fine with me (let’s not get bent out of shape over this stuff). I don’t have to agree with them, nor they with me. It just is apparent to me that when the arguments are probed, these are the operative dynamics present in 99% of the time. A few of us now believe that this way theologising and exegeting (ie the false disjunction method) is the heart of every critical aspect of the Protestant Scholastic soteriological paradigm and polemics.

    I think most folk don’t see this because they are committed to the theological and exegetical conclusions already, in the way that all they can see are two options, it is either this or heresy. No one likes to knowingly walk into heresy, so we stay with these commitments. And then I think the mind works back up the deductivist chain seeking to justify the hierarchies. Something like this: “well I have to believe this paradigm because the alternatives are unacceptable.


  5. July 13, 2007 10:50 am

    Yes, I just read Kevin Kennedy’s book *Union With Christ And The Extent of the Atonement in Calvin,* and he presents many of the “particularist” arguments in just that fashion. The atonement was either limited or it could not have been substitutionary etc.

    I thought some of Kennedy’s wording was a little less precise than it could be (calling things particularist vs. universalist still sounds wrong to me), but the treatment of Calvin was superb. I especially like the places where Calvin modifies “many” to mean “all.” :)

  6. Flynn permalink
    July 16, 2007 8:43 am

    Hey Mark,

    Well thats what happened, in my opinion. Beza is the classic here. He could not exegete Matt 23:37 in a way that might deny God’s decree, as he saw it. For Beza, the Decree had swallowed up Calvin’s Revealed Will.

    There was clearly a smoothing out of the “tensions” by the post-Calvin Cavlinists. Even Muller grants this. The debate is when does smoothing become flattening?

    Take care,


  1. at once more with feeling

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