Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Extent of the Atonement

The Extent of the Atonement: a Historical and Critical Review by David Lewis Allen is a very large book of 848 pages that I will probably never sit down and read through, but rather use as a reference work. But it will be a good reference. Brian Abasciano says, “Allen’s tome is now the book to own on the extent of the atonement and the place to turn for support of unlimited atonement and refutation of limited atonement” and Nathan Finn adds that it “is the most extensive treatment of this topic that has been written—certainly by a Baptist.”

David L. Allen, the author of The Extent of the Atonement, “serves as the Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Preaching, Director of the Center for Expository Preaching, and holds the George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.”

In this book David Allen makes a case for an atonement that is universal in its extent. He further asserts that universal atonement has been the majority view of Christians throughout all church history. Following the introduction, Allen’s book is divided in three parts: “The Extent of the Atonement in Church History,” from early church to the modern era; “The Extent of the Atonement in the Baptist Tradition,” from the English General and Particular Baptists to Baptists in America and Southern Baptists in particular;[i] “The Extent of the Atonement: a Critical Review,” which is about 110 pages of detailed review of the book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. I really appreciate the chronological arrangement of historical sections. Since I don’t own From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, the last third provides the least interest to me. Allen concludes with “Why Belief in Unlimited Atonement Matters.”

I originally resisted the idea of purchasing the book, considering the topic and cost – but relented when I understood this would be a good historical reference work. Allen sets out with a focus and difficult task, realizing “space prohibits the citations of quotations in full context” he nevertheless “attempted to give enough context where possible to minimize mischaracterization and to maximize objectivity.” He focuses on primary source material which “must be consulted whenever possible...We must objectively listen to historical theology, and the only to do this is to read carefully the primary sources and those who have engaged the primary sources...I will be referencing numerous quotations as evidence of a particular author’s view on the extent of the atonement...I have attempted, where possible, to use quotations only from primary sources.” (p. xvi ) His focus on primary source material yields odd results at times. With Richard Furman he states that Furman changed his view from limited atonement to unlimited atonement with no quotations, merely footnoting a reference to Winds of Doctrines by Wiley W. Richards. On Jesse Mercer, rather than citing Mercer giving his own view of the atonement, he quotes Mercer talking about the views of others regarding the atonement. Nevertheless, over the whole range of the book, there are lots of quotes from primary sources.

While David Allen is scholarly and thorough, he is not without bias, stating, “My ultimate goal in this work is simple: to demonstrate historically, and then biblically and theologically, why universal atonement is a more excellent way...” At times this view may cause him to see some Christians as closer to his viewpoint, while researchers with opposite bias may see them as closer to their viewpoint. Such is life. This also explains his focus on the unlimited sufficiency of the atonement over the limited efficacy of the atonement (that is, some hold both these points in tension and Allen categorizes them on “his side”). In my opinion, this produces a strange conglomeration of a category that embraces everything from 4-point Calvinism to Universal Salvation and all points in between. This nevertheless fits within the overall purpose of Allen’s tome.

With Jeff Johnson I can agree that “regardless of whether we agree or disagree with Allen’s critical conclusions, I believe we will all agree that he has written a valuable book.”

[i] Allen is a Southern Baptist, which explains his focus on the atonement theology in the Southern Baptist Convention.

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