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Paul Helm, John Bunyan and Unlimited Atonement (or not)

July 14, 2011

A friend of mine found this old article by Helm on Bunyan on the authorship of Reprobation Asserted. It’s a short article and should be read before reading my comments below.

Helm argues that Bunyan did write Reprobation Asserted , but that it does not teach unlimited atonement.

A few thoughts:

1) We have three basic takes on the authorship of the work and the theology on the extent of the death of Christ.

A) Greaves: Bunyan didn’t write it, but yet it teaches unlimited atonement

B) Helm:  Bunyan did write it, but yet it does not teach unlimited atonement.

C) Muller, Daniel: Bunyan did write it, and yet it does teach unlimited atonement.

For me C) is far more plausible.

The positive thing is that Helm does present some internal textual indicators for the case of Bunyan as author of this work. Other than that, though, the article has more problems than good points.

2)  Helm is fudging the text of Bunyan.

A) Bunyan does not say “sufficiency,” but that the death of Christ “extends” as far as the tender of the gospel. The word “extend” (and its cognate forms)  in the literature of this period didn’t normally apply to the sufficiency of the satisfaction, but to the satisfaction itself and/or its application.

B) If Helm is right, then the “extension” is narrower than the “tender.” Helm’s wording is clear, the sufficiency is for all who believe. However, Bunyan expressly speaks of the “tender” and says the death must extend as far as the tender extends.  Helm has made the tender to the reprobate but the extension only to those who believe and come. He has subverted Bunyan’s point.

C) Helm uses a dodgy logical entailment argument.

The question is, how can tenders be made to the reprobate? Helm argues that inserting unlimited atonement in there (to ground the well-intentionality of the tenders) does not help, because he believes in election and reprobation. Helm:

But let us suppose for the moment that Professor Greaves is correct, and that the work  does teach a general atonement at this point. How would the doctrine of general  atonement, given the author’s views on election and reprobation, help to answer the question posed at the beginning of the chapter, “Whether God would indeed and in truth,  that the gospel, with the grace thereof, should be tendered to those that yet he hath bound up under Eternal Reprobation?” That Christ died for men in general would only help if it as coupled with a denial of the doctrine of election and reprobation, but the author of Reprobation Asserted does not deny election, but steadfastly maintains it, ‘and reprobation as its corollary. [Underlining mine.]

What exactly does that argue for? On the surface it says, election and reprobation preclude well-intentioned offers, such that adding unlimited atonement in no way helps Bunyan resolve the question regarding sincere tenders of the Gospel to the non-elect.

Helm’s solution to the alleged dilemma is to say that what makes the tendered offer well-intentioned is the simple conditional statement: ‘Any who come to Christ will find a sufficient atonement.’

I personally do not believe that limited atonement (as defined by Helm, et al) can ground a sincere offer of the gospel.  For the moment, however, let me assume that Helm is right, purely for the sake of the argument. Lets grant that his definition of the ‘well-intentioned tender’ makes it compatible with election and reprobation. That is, election and reprobation are compatible with the tenders of the Gospel, for the reason Helm claims. But so what? Someone like Bunyan, or me would simply reply, “well and good,” for this would mean that tenders of the gospel (as defined by Helm), are compatible with election and reprobation, and compatible with unlimited atonement. Bunyan might say, ‘the truth of an unlimited atonement gives us further reasons why the tenders of the gospel are sincere and well-intended.’  Helm’s point here in this sub-section turns out to be gratuitous at best.

However, the logical argument Helm attempts to table actually undercuts his point.

The real questions are, and this is what Helm does not address, 1) Does his concept of “well-intentionality” truly ground a biblically sincere “offer” of the gospel?; 2) Can limited atonement (as defined by Helm) be made compatible with a biblical concept of “offer”? I would say that one cannot offer what one does not have to give. For any offer to be sincere-whether its an offered cup of water, an offer of a hand in marriage, or an offer of a cure, whatever-one must be able to give what one offers. If God offers pardon and forgiveness of sins to all men, he must be able to pardon and forgive all men. However, if only the sins of the elect have been imputed to Christ, then God cannot offer forgiveness to others not elected.  For more on this, go here.


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