Monday, October 19, 2009

Wayne Grudem on the Atonement

Wayne Grudem has provided his Systematic Theology: an enormous (1291 pages) and apparently popular (the cover of one recent printing claims sales of over 1/4 million) tome. Chapter 27 (pp. 568-607 in what appears to be the 2000 printing) addresses the topic of the atonement. Much of the material serves as a helpful general introduction to the atonement from a broadly Calvinistic perspective. There are a number of helpful explanations in the chapter that are geared toward frequently asked contemporary questions, such as the question "did Christ endure eternal suffering."

There were also, however, a few disappointments with the chapter. Pages 582-94 include a very lengthy discussion of the credal phrase "he descended into hell." While this may be an important discussion, it seemed out of place at least as to the proportion of emphasis in the chapter. Grudem's discussion is quite detailed and provides an uncharacteristically (for Grudem on the atonement) deep look into history. Although it was quite detailed, I think I still prefer the explanation provided by Danny Hyde, which I discussed previously (link).

The chapter was especially weak in its defense of particular redemption, also called "limited atonement." The exegetical analysis of the passages relied upon by Amyraldians and Arminians seemed cursory at best, and omitted some of the best explanations of the sense of those passages. Furthermore, while little space was devoted to establishing the doctrine from Scripture many times more space was devoted to accommodating those who disagree with this doctrine.

Especially disappointing was Grudem's naive assertion that "It seems to be a mistake to state the question [of the extent of the atonement] as Berkhof does and focus on the purpose of the Father and the Son, rather than on what actually happened in the atonement." What actually happened, after all, depends largely on the intent and purpose of the Father and the Son.

In his ecumenical efforts, Grudem ends up providing a number of confused statements regarding characterizations of the atonement, such as affirming that it is proper to say that "Christ died to bring the free offer of the gospel to all people" or "Christ died to make salvation available to all people." The problem with these statements becomes clear when we realize that Grudem's statements are statements about the purpose and intent of the atonement (and statements that get that purpose and intent wrong, at least formally), rather than about what the atonement actually did.

The above criticism should not be taken as suggesting that Grudem is an Amyraldian. He is insistent that the atonement only paid for the sins of the elect. Nevertheless, his chapter contains a number of significant weaknesses, which prevent it from receiving the highest praise. Lest we end on a sour note, it should be observed that Grudem provides an interesting (if somewhat incomplete) bibliography at the end of the chapter, as he does at the end of many (perhaps all) of the chapters of his Systematic Theology. All in all, it is a good introduction to the topic, but you can get a more accurate and more detailed explanation in a number of the books to which Grudem refers his readers.


Jason Smathers said...

I believe this is the first negative thing I have heard about this book.

Turretinfan said...

I can't explain that phenomenon, except that perhaps Grudem's book has been marketed to folks for whom the book is their first introduction to Systematic Theology.

Dr. Raymond A. Blacketer said...

"Christ died to make salvation available to all people." I don't understand how this statement is not susceptible to the charge of hypothetical universalism, if not even Arminianism, whether it refers to intent or effect. "Available" in what sense? So that it "avails" presumably, and it cannot avail for the reprobate, or for those for whom Christ did not die.

Turretinfan said...

Agreed, Dr. Blacketer.

Bill said...

Well, interesting that you guys find this a negative in the book. I see it as a positive. Both John Owen and Louis Berkhof fail when explaining the atonement. Both, unintentionally, deny the gospel by denying that Christ died for all men. The gospel as Grudem correctly understands it demands that ALL sinners repent of their dead works and trust that Jesus died for them Hebrews 6:1 . So it is impossible to preach the gospel if we are unable to tell every sinner, and this includes Judas and Pharaoh, that Christ died for them and forgave their sin. It is true that when Judas and Pharaoh rejected the forgiveness of sin they forfeited their salvation. But this originates with Judas and Pharaoh, and not with God, who atoned fully for their sin and made full satisfaction which was rejected. John Davenant, the chief of the british delegation to Dort, explains this wonderfully in his book "A dissertation on the death of Christ". Also Zacharias Ursinus in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism defends unlimited atonement. John Calvin in many of his writings also affirmed that Christ died for all. Scripture does the same. So Wayne Grudem is correct that those that whether you affirm limited or unlimited atonement if you are afraid to tell an unrepentant sinner that Christ died and offer himself as a sacrifice for him / her , then you are not preaching the gospel. Limited atonement as taught by John Owen and Louis Berkhof is utter heresy, blasphemy, and denies the gospel of Christ.