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Carl Trueman on Owen’s “seeming” reliance on a crude commercial atonement

September 20, 2007

I have been wanting to post this for a long time. I have included some of the text so the reader can get something of the context. Its that footnote I really want folk to zero in on right now, footnote 115. The underlining is mine.

The Source: Carl Trueman, The Claims of Truth, John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology, (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1998), 138-140.

The Text:

It is clear from this passage that not only is the atonement’s particularity based on this covenant of redemption but that Owen, judging by his final comment, regards the covenant of redemption also as the ultimate basis for the rejection of universal ransom theories. This is entirely consistent with Owen’s desire to construct a non-speculative, Christocentric soteriological structure, and merely underlines the connection between the eternal covenant and Christ’s work in history which is already clear in his formulation of the mediatorial role of Christ. What Owen does is to provide both election and incarnation with a common causal ground in the covenant between Father and Son, thereby establishing a single framework within which both doctrines must be understood.

Such a connection between Christology and election, whereby the latter must always be understood within the context of the former, is scarcely unique to Owen: it is common in the typically Christocentric constructions of election that are found in Reformed Orthodoxy. For example, in the more vigorously supralapsarian theology of Owen’s friend, Thomas Goodwin, speculative considerations about whether it is unfallen or fallen humanity which is the object of predestination, are not allowed to lift the issue of the election of individuals above Christological considerations: Christ as Mediator is the object of God’s first decree, and individual persons are then subsequently predestined to union with him. As with Owen’s, therefore, Goodwin’s theology places Christology in close relation to the decree and points to a common causal ground for both.113

In light of arguments concerning the impact of ‘one-end teleology’ on Owen’s soteriology,114 it is important to grasp that Owen does not here base his argument regarding the relationship between predestination and atonement on Aristotelian logic. Instead, his argument is built upon the notion of the covenant of redemption, which defines Christ’s role as Mediator for the elect whom God has given him. This is not a concept which Owen obtains from some textbook on Aristotelian logic but a doctrine he derives from biblical exegesis. It does not mean, of course, that his exegesis is correct–one might indeed wish to fault Owen’s interpretation and application of the Isaiah passage–but, if he is in error at this point, he is guilty of bad biblical interpretation, not of a thoroughgoing subordination of theology to Aristotle. As we should expect, given our findings concerning Owen’s understanding of the principles of theology, it is the Trinitarian and Christological structures in his thought which provide the foundation for the atonement’s particularity, not some Aristotelian methodology. The atonement is limited because the covenant of redemption, the causal ground of all the acts of Christ’s mediation, is itself limited in terms of efficacy to the elect thanks to the nature of the transaction between Father and Son.115

            113Goodwin, Works 9, pp. 93 ff.

            114For a full discussion of this, see below, Appendix One: The Role of Aristotelian

Teleology in Owen’s Doctrine of Atonement.

            115A possible objection at this point could be that Owen does indeed seem to rely upon rational arguments in defence of his doctrine of limited atonement, as, for example, when he declares that God cannot have died for the sins of those who will end up in hell because then he would be punishing the same sin twice, which would be unfair: see Works 10, p. 173. We must, however, beware of overemphasizing the importance of this point to Owen’s case. Particularity has already been introduced into the argument via the covenant of redemption, which defines the nature of the office of Mediator, and it is within this context that such arguments are to be understood. It is… true that his point here seems to rely on a crudely commercial theory of the atonement, but we must beware of misunderstanding this in crudely quantitative terms (see Ch. 5 below) and be aware that the argument is only a subsidiary point in support of a position which is independently established on other theological grounds. Indeed, it is only in the context of Christ’s appointment as Mediator that his sufferings can be said to have any value at all, because it is only thanks to the covenant of redemption that Christ’s work can either happen in the first place, or stand in any positive connection to sinful humanity. Discussions of the intrinsic value of Christ’s sufferings which fail to set these within the Trinitarian context of mediation are alien to Owen’s theology: see Ch. 5. For an example of how failure to set Owen’s teaching in its Trinitarian context can lead to misunderstanding, see Clifford, who makes great play of the significance of commercialism in Owen’s theory of atonement, but does not set this within the Trinitarian context: Atonement und Justification, pp. 126 ff. As we shall see, far more significant in the limitation of the atonement is Owen’s emphasis on the unity of Christ’s oblation and intercession in the office of Mediator. Compared to this, the Grotian distinction between solutio tantidem (which Owen opposes) and solutio eiusdem (which Owen accepts) is, pace Clifford, of much less significance. In Book Three of the treatise, primacy of place in establishing the limitation of atonement is given to arguments based upon the covenants, and arguments for satisfaction are only dealt with once this basic point has been established: Works 10, pp. 236-8. At most, one can argue that notions of satisfaction and the commercial theory of the atonement play an important subsidiary role within the overall argument of the treatise. This is quite clear from Owen’s statement in Book Two that Christ’s death is the result of the covenant of grace (itself the result of the covenant of redemption, in which, as we have seen, particularity plays a central role). not its foundation, thereby explicitly making the nature of the atonement dependent upon the Trinitarian/covenantal structure of redemption: Works 10, pp. 207-8; cf. Works 11. p. 303.


I believe Trueman is seriously downplaying the role of this ‘crude commercial theory of the atonement.’ I am not sure “subsidiary” the right word. The trilemma is the heart of Owen’s logical and theological polemic against his opponents. The trilemma sustains all his claims. This is true because he uses the his claim against “two payments” to sustain his exegesis of such verses as 1 Jn 2:2. He uses assumptions grounded in a commercial atonement to sustain his claims regarding that verse. If the ground is, rightly, removed, his objections for an unlimited reading of that verse fall away. This holds for some of his other critical exegetical claims as well.

Thus, if the trilemma is shown to be false, much of what he argues is now on shaky ground. But at the heart of the trilemma is exactly that: a crude commercial theory of the atonement.  Either this seemingly crude commercial atonement is there or its not. If it is, it grounds Owen’s logical and theological polemic.

If all that Trueman means to imply by “subsidiary” is that it is not Owen’s main argument, thats fine. But it is his central underpinning for his theological and logical arguments against unlimited expiation, because of the alleged “unfairness” entailed in an unlimited expiation. It seems absurd to me to admit the presence of this commercial atonement, but then downplay its impact or force in Owen’s logic.

I cant see why Trueman cannot come out and just drop the “seems” and be explicit here. Every metaphor Owen uses, that I can recall, which he invokes to describe the satisfaction is a pecuniary metaphor, either as a fine payment, debt payment.

What is more, it is because Owen sees the atonement in commercial categories that he can speak of the impossibility of the atonement being negated by unbelief, because belief, itself, is purchased by the atonement.

What is good is that at least Trueman is acknowledging the presence of this crude commercialism. I wish for more, but I am happy with these few bones.

To be continued…

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