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Dabney: Establishing the corrective

December 6, 2007

If the reader will recall, we have been walking through Dabney’s polemics on the expiation of Christ. Because of the time-delays, I will try again to set out the summary of his logic. Recall that for Dabney, the question he wishes to address are the ‘difficulties which beset this subject.’ What is critical here is that Dabney wants to walk between two extremes. He wants to absolve the doctrine of special redemption from the Arminian charges and that it is true to Scripture, on the one hand, and he also wishes to point out that the, hithertoo, standard counters to the Arminian objections–some of them–do not work. Recall this critical comment from Dabney: 

But the difficulties which beset the subject are great, and unless you differ from me, you will feel that the manner in which they are dealt with by some Calvinistic writers, is unsatisfactory” (p 523).

The wording there is complex, but he is saying, unless you disagree with him, you too will find that the normal way some Calvinistic writers have tried to answer some of the critical Arminian objections is not helpful.

In the context of page 523, that one critical objection to the claims by the ultra-Calvinists–as Dabney will call them–is that on their schema, how can the non-elect be held accountable for not believing in an impossibility. Let me quote Dabney again:

The usual answer given by Calvinists of the rigid school to this objection is that God may sincerely offer this salvation to every creature, because, although not designed for all, it is in its nature sufficient for, and adapted to all. They say that since Christ’s sacrifice is of infinite value, and as adequate for covering all the sins of every sinner in the universe, as of one; and since Christ bears the common nature of all sinners, and God’s revealed, and not His secret, decretive, will is the proper rule of man’s conduct, this satisfaction may be candidly offered to all (p., 523).

 To this Dabney, replies:

Arminians rejoin, that this implies an adoption of their conception of the nature of the atonement, as a general satisfaction for human guilt as a mass and whole; that the punishment of gospel hardened sinners for unbelief (which we admit will occur), would be unjust on our scheme, since by it they would be punished for not believing what would not be true, if they had believed it; and that since, on our scheme the believing of a non elect sinner is not naturally, but only morally impossible, it is a supposible case for argument’s sake, and this case supposed, God could not be sincere, unless such a sinner should be saved in Christ, supposing He came.

That is, a man–that is, a non-elect man–is being held as condemnable for not believing in something which is it is  impossible and untrue for him.  Now immediately after citing this Arminian rejoinder, Dabney makes this concession:

The honest mind will feel these objections to be attended with real difficulty. Thus, in defining the nature of Christ vicarious work, Calvinists assert a proper substitution and imputation of individuals’ sins. On the strict view, the sins of the non elect were never imputed to Christ. The fact, then, that an infinite satisfaction was made for imputed guilt does not seem to be a sufficient ground for offering the benefits thereof to those whose sins were never imputed.

The “strict” view is the ultra-Calvinist view. And so he says, in the strict view, the sins of the non-elect were never imputed to Christ. So the fact then, that though the satisfaction of Christ, while internally (Owen) or intrinsically infinite, is not sufficient to ground the offer to those whose sins were never imputed to Christ.

This is critical here. Understanding what Dabney is saying here changed my understanding. The only way I can explain this with the most clarity is to use my analogy of the 10 men in jail. Each man is condemned to suffer X punishment. A man, by the consent of the judge, substitutes for 4 of the men, and so suffers X. Somehow, the ultra-Calvinist (again, that’s Dabney’s own term), imagines that what the substitute accomplished is somehow offerable to the remaining 6 men. But it is not, it never will be. The names of only 4 were on the “ticket” of those for whom the substitute suffered. Therefore what the substitute effect is not actually sufficient (ie adaptable, suitable, C Hodge) for the remaining 6. Hypothetically, it could have been sufficient for the 6 others, had their names also been placed on the ticket.

A lot of Calvinists seem blind to the problem here. Now suppose the judge says to the 6 men, if you confess your criminality, what this substitute accomplished will be applied to you, and you will be released. The problem is, its now too late. Their confession (belief) will not somehow make the benefit accomplished by the substitute sufficient for them (Baxter). It never will. This is the self-refuting contradiction in the Protestant Scholastic revision of the classic “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” formula. This contradiction is made worse when modern Calvinists insist on denying that it’s the category of sins imputed to Christ, but only personal sins.

So, now, in order to get to this dilemma, to solve it, Dabney will go engage in an excursus to deal with sundry other objections. We have outlined some of these. And recall, too, that he said he would answer all the Arminian objections in reverse order. Thus, now on page 527, he addresses this first objection (as outlined on p., 523).

So here we go. Dabney now seeks to present his own corrective to the ultra-Calvinist schema:

I will endeavor to contribute what I can to the adjustment of this intricate subject in the form of a series of remarks.

The difficulty which besets this solemn subject is no doubt in part overwhelming and insurmountable for finite minds. Indeed, it is the same difficulty which besets the relation of God’s election to man’s free agency, tend not a new one, reappearing in a new phase; for redemption is limited precisely by the decree, and by nothing else. We shall approximate a solution as nearly as is perhaps practicable for man, by considering the same truths to which we resort in the seeming paradox arising from election. There are in the Bible two classes of truths: those which are the practical rule of exertion for man in his own free agency, and those which are the recondite and non practical explanations of God’s action towards us—e. g., in John 5:40 is the one; in John 6:44 is the other; In John 1:36 is one; in 2 Thess. 2:13 is the other; In Rev. 22:17 is one; In Rom. 9:16 is the other. These classes of truths, when drawn face to face, often seem paradoxical, but when we remember that God’s sovereignty is no revealed rule for our action, and that our inability to do our duty without sovereign grace arises only from our voluntary depravity, we see that there is no real collision. (p., 527)

At the outset, Dabney wants to say that what limits the expiation and redemption is the decree itself. As Hodge says, there is no limitation in the nature of the satisfaction itself.

So Dr. Cox, in his introductory chapter, speaks of “the limitation of the nature” of the atonement, and represents those whom he opposes as holding that it is as “limited in its nature as in its application.”–Pp. 16, 17. If these gentlemen would take the trouble to read a little on this subject they mould find that this is all a mistake. They are merely beating the air. Those who deny that Christ died for Judas’ as much as for Paul, for the non-elect as much as for the elect, and who maintain that he died strictly and properly only for his own people, do not hold that there is any limitation in the nature of the atonement. They teach as fully as any men, that “an atonement sufficient for one is sufficient for all.” It is a simple question relating to the design, and not to the nature of Christ’s work. That work, as far as we know or believe, would have been the same had God purposed to save but one soul or the souls of all mankind. We hold that the atonement as to its value is infinite, and as to its nature as much adapted to one man as to another, to all as to one. The whole question is, for what purpose did he die ? What was the design which God intended to accomplish by his mission and death? That this is the true state of the question is obvious from the fact that the Reformed and Lutherans do not differ at all as to the nature of Christ’s satisfaction, though they do differ as to its design. Charles Hodge, “Beman on the Atonement,” in Essays and Reviews, in (New York, Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857),  170-171.

But in the ultra-Calvinist schema, there has to be a limitation in the very nature of the atonement, as only the sins of the elect were imputed to Christ.  Hodge, like Edwards, like Shedd and like our Dabney, jettison this idea. Back to Dabney:

Now Christ is a true substitute. His sufferings were penal and vicarious, and made a true satisfaction for all those who actually embrace them by faith. But the conception charged on us seems to be, as though Christ’s expiation were a web of the garment of righteousness to be cut into definite pieces and distributed out, so much to each person of the elect, whence, of course, it must have a definite aggregate length, and had God seen fit to add any to the number of elect, He must have had an additional extent of web woven. This is all incorrect. Satisfaction was Christ’s indivisible act, and inseparable vicarious merit, infinite in moral value, the whole in its unity and completeness, imputed to every believing elect man, without numerical division, subtraction or exhaustion. Had there been but one elect man, his vicarious satisfaction had been just what it is in its essential nature. Had God elected all sinners, there would have been no necessity to make Christ’s atoning sufferings essentially different. Remember, the limitation is precisely in the decree, and no where else. It seems plain that the vagueness and ambiguity of the modern term “atonement,” has very much complicated the debate. This word, not classical in the Reformed theology, is used sometimes for satisfaction for guilt, sometimes for the reconciliation ensuing thereon; until men on both sides of the debate have forgotten the distinction. The one is cause, the other effect. The only New Testament sense the word atonement has is that of katallagh , reconciliation. But expiation is another idea. Katallage is personal. Exilasmos is impersonal. Katallage is multiplied, being repeated as often as a sinner comes to the expiatory blood. exilasmos is single, unique, complete; and, in itself considered, has no more relation to one man’s sins than another. As it is applied in effectual calling, it becomes personal, and receives a limitation. But in itself, limitation is irrelevant to it. Hence, when men use the word atonement, as they so often do, in the sense of expiation, the phrases, “limited atonement,” “particular atonement,” have no meaning. Redemption is limited, i. e., to true believers, and is particular. Expiation is not limited, (pp., 527-528).

I can say with confidence, that unless one really seeks to understand Dabney in all this, one will not see it, never will see the problem.

For Dabney, talk of limited atonement (and cognate phrases) is irrelevant: such phrases are meaningless. Redemption is the application of the expiation (here he agrees with Shedd), whereas the expiation is unlimited.  The reader needs to be careful here. Some may want to say that when Dabney says the expiation is unlimited he simply meant unlimited in value. It is not merely that the expiation is infinite, but that in the way redemption is limited, the expiation is unlimited. Of course, as he is not saying that the redemption is limited, as in finite value, so he is not saying that the expiation is merely infinite, as to value. As he measures the limitation of the latter, he measures the non-limitation of the former.

And we also have Dabney expressly stating that the limitation is ONLY in the decree to apply, and no where else.

In this way, Dabney believes he can answer the Arminian objection. But what is more, he clearly feels he is truer to Scripture. He does not have to wrest Scripture (p., 532).


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