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B.B. Warfield on the Removal of Legal Obstacles: An Exercise in Missing the Point

May 29, 2009

Warfield:

The Amyraldians “point with pride” to the purity of their confession of the doctrine of election, and wish to focus attention upon it as constituting them good Calvinists. But the real hinge of their system turns on their altered doctrine of the atonement, and here they strike at the very heart of Calvinism. A conditional substitution being an absurdity, because the condition is no condition to God, if you grant him even so much as the poor attribute of foreknowledge, they necessarily turn away from a substitutive atonement altogether. Christ did not die in the sinner’s stead, it seems, to bear his penalties and purchase for him eternal life; he died rather to make the salvation of sinners possible, to open the way of salvation to sinners, to remove all the obstacles in the way of salvation of sinners. But what obstacle stands in the way of the salvation of sinners, except just their sin? And if this obstacle (their sin) is removed, are they not saved? Some other obstacles must be invented, therefore, which Christ may be said to have removed (since he cannot be said to have removed the obstacle of sin) that some function may be left to him and some kind of effect be attributed to his sacrificial death. He did not remove the obstacle of sin, for then all those for whom he died must be saved, and he cannot be allowed to have saved anyone. He removed, then, let us say, all that prevented God from saving men, except sin; and so he prepared the way for God to step in and with safety to his moral government to save men. The atonement lays no foundation for this saving of men: it merely opens the way for God safely to save them on other grounds.

We are now fairly on the basis of the Governmental Theory of the Atonement; and this is in very truth the highest form of doctrine of atonement to which we can on these premises attain. In other words, all the substance of the atonement is evaporated, that it may be given a universal reference. And, indeed, we may at once recognize it as an unavoidable effect of universalizing the atonement that it is by that very act eviscerated. If it does nothing for any man that it does not do for all men why, then, it is obvious that it saves no man; for clearly not all men are saved. The things that we have to choose between, are an atonement of high value, or an atonement of wide extension. The two cannot go together. And this is the real objection of Calvinism to this compromise scheme which presents itself as an improvement on its system: it universalizes the atonement at the cost of its intrinsic value, and Calvinism demands a really substitutive atonement which actually saves. And as a really substitutive atonement which actually saves cannot be universal because obviously all men are not saved, in the interests of the integrity of the atonement it insists that particularism has entered into the saving process prior, in the order of thought, to the atonement.  B.B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1915), 121-122.

[Notes: While the purposes of this site is to lay out a positive case for the classic-moderate view of Calvinism, it seems necessary to occasionally cite the incorrect constructions on certain topics in order to reveal the contrast in a more evident manner. What Warfield presents here is highly inadequate at many different levels. Firstly, the false either/or (aka false dilemma fallacy), of Christ either dying merely to remove the legal obstacles for all men, or he died to infallibly save a limited number.  No one on the Reformed side has ever affirmed one at the expense of the other; not even Amyraut.  Secondly, Warfield directs his reader’s attention to the removal of sin as an obstacle, when that was never the point or claim of any Amyraldian or mainstream Calvinist (, eg., John Brown, Charles Hodge et al). The reader should note the subtle caricature, too, when Warfield alleges Amyraldians say all obstacles have been removed, rather than the specific penal and judicial obstacles.  Thirdly, The claim that the removal of legal obstacles which lie on God’s side entails a Governmental theory of the atonement is an ad hominem by way of strawman and guilt by association: it effectively poisons the well.  And this third misstep once again inserts the false dilemma fallacy. Fourthly, it is clear that Warfield has misread Amyraldianism, and has been too eager to attribute to that position ideas and entailments cannot be found in Amyraut’s theology.  Fifthly, Warfield is also confused about the more general Reformed doctrine of the removal of legal obstacles. Lastly, it is disappointing that so many today are treating Warfield’s skewed understanding as a reliable guide on this theology and thereby by reproducing his erroneous construction. It is as if many are assuming Warfield is a sound primary source on Amyraldianism, in particular, and on the Reformed position in general.]

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