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Owen’s Trilemma and Ursinus: a case study in comparison

August 31, 2007

[Part 2, here.]

Here is an interesting comparison:

Here you will find a reworded form of Owen’s Trilemma:

And the form is:

The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:

  1. All the sins of all men.
  2. All the sins of some men, or
  3. Some of the sins of all men.

In which case it may be said:

  1. That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
  2. That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
  3. But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?

You answer, “Because of unbelief.”

I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!”

So let’s think about this. There are layers again here. We can leave aside for a moment the question of whether or not this argument is sound (it aint, btw). Also, this argument is a little more complex than this form proposed here. Here it gives the impression that Owen is barely saying that if a negative barrier has been removed, with regard to any given sinner, God is now obligated to save that given sinner. As stated, this version of the trilemma does not prove, as I can see, that if God removes a negation (ie and obstacle) with regard to any man, he is necessarily obliged to save that man.

Small aside: Well, let me just note, Owen’s trilemma here ONLY works if one construes the expiation of Christ as a pecuniary payment. Think of paying a speeding fine. If the fine is paid, it cannot fail to come about that the speeder is discharged of his obligation to the court. Owen’s trilemma, therefore, only works by transforming the penal expiation of Christ into pecuniary categories.

Now to resume my main point: but we know that Owen’s trilemma did not actually stop here.  Owen’s trilemma actually has a few more supporting premises which lay behind this argument. These are: the expiation, in and of itself, purchases faith, the condition and counter-point to unbelief, for all whom Christ suffered and died. And, further, that it is morally unjust for God to punish any sinner, for his sin, if he has already punished his in in Christ. So now that we are at least aware that the argument is more complex than this simple form of the trilemma

So back to my point, we also have to think about its pedigree. I mean, lets assume that the pre-Protestant Scholastics were Owenic in their construction of limited atonement. Let’s suppose that. Now, if that were so, then one would expect to find concruent theological expressions, right?

Here is an example of what I mean:

Ursinus deals with an objector to his contention that Christ died especially for some men, and not others.

Obj. 2. All those ought to be received into favor for whose offences a sufficient satisfaction has been made. Christ has made a sufficient satisfaction for the offences of all men. Therefore all ought to be received into favor; and if this is not done, God is either unjust to men, or else there is something detracted from the merit of Christ. Ans. The major is true, unless some condition is added to the satisfaction; as, that only those are saved through it, who apply it unto themselves by faith. But this condition is expressly added, where it is said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” ( John 3 : 16.)  Ursinus, Commentary on the HC, p., 107.

So note the major premise there from the objector.

All those ought to be received into favor for whose offences a sufficient satisfaction has been made.

Now Ursinus’ objector is actually a Socinian, in case you didnt know that. But ironically, his major premise is identical to Owen’s sustaining premise for his Trilemma.

The major premise is saying that for all whom Christ suffered and died, they all ought to be saved. The objector is positing a necesssary moral, judicial and logical and connection here.

So now the minor premise:

Christ has made a sufficient satisfaction for the offences of all men

Now here is where the Socinian departs from the Owenist. However, what is important here is that both are arguing from the same identical premise, but to the opposite ends. The objector is using the major premise to establish an actual universal salvation of all men. Owen uses it to prove limited atonement.

Now here comes the interesting part. One would think, assuming that Ursinus was an Owenist, that he should have simply denied this minor premise. If Owen had been given this objection, or any modern high Calvinist, that would surely be their first response. However, this is not what Ursinus does. This starts to tell me that he was not thinking Owenically, that he did not construct his theology of the atonement by way of the trilemma.

Now to the conclusion of the objector:

Therefore all ought to be received into favor

Here he takes the syllogism to universalism.

So now to Ursinus’ rebuttal:

The major is true, unless some condition is added to the satisfaction

In other words, the major premise would be true, IF there were no conditions for the application of the atonement. What this instantly tells us that Ursinus did not believe that for all whom Christ suffered died, they must be saved. This tells us too, that he did’nt imagine that the expiation, in and of itself, purchases or secures faith, absolutely, for all whom Christ suffered and died.

Ursinus then backs up his counter by tabling verses which speak of a condition attached to the reception and application of the expiation.

Now, lest anyone say to me, “David, but Ursinus could not have believed that Christ made a sufficient and actual satisfaction for all men, and that just because he deny that minor premise here, does not mean he agreed with the minor premise.”

To that I would cite this from the context of Ursinus:

Obj. 4. If Christ made satisfaction for all, then all ought to be saved. But all are not saved. Therefore, he did not make a perfect satisfaction. Ans. Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof; for he fulfilled the law in a two-fold respect. First, by his own righteousness; and secondly, by making satisfaction for our sins, each of which is most perfect. But the satisfaction is made ours by an application, which is also two-fold; the former of which is made by God, when he justifies us on account of the merit of his Son, and brings it to pass that we cease from sin; the latter is accomplished by us through faith. For we apply unto ourselves, the merit of Christ, when by a true faith, we are fully persuaded that God for the sake of the satisfaction of his Son, remits unto us our sins. Without this application, the satisfaction of Christ is of no benefit to us. Ursinus, Commentary on the HC, p., 215

The same objector in in view here. The objector is trying a reductio on Ursinus, saying if he does not grant his universalism, then he must say that Christ’s sacrifice and satisfaction was imperfect, ie defective. So now, note what Ursinus says. The application is limited, while the satisfaction is unlimited. And again, he could not have imagined that the expiation absolutely secures faith, the condition, for all whom the satisfaction was made.

Anyway, for more on Ursinus, see my file here. For more on the double payment fallacy in Owen’s Trilemma argument, see here. For more refutations of the double-payment/jeopardy fallacy, go here and scroll down to the appropriate section.

I can say from my own reading of men like Calvin, Ursinus, Bullinger, et al, that none of these men operated by any of Owen’s trilemma premises or presuppositions.


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