I (Lucas Bradburn) had the pleasure recently of interviewing Lee Gatiss, Director of Church Society and Editor of The NIV Proclamation Bible (Hodder). Lee is also Review Editor of the journal Churchman, and Series Editor of The Reformed Evangelical Anglican Library. He has studied history and theology at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), and trained for Anglican ministry at Oak Hill (London). He has served in several Anglican churches including St Helen’s, Bishopsgate and the Church Society Trust parish of St Botolph’s, Barton Seagrave. Lee is also Adjunct Lecturer in Church History at Wales Evangelical School of Theology and the author of many books, articles, and reviews. One of his most recent books is For Us and Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry.
In your new book, For Us and Our Salvation, you note that you are doing doctoral work on John Owen. What exactly are you writing on? How has Owen most influenced you? Was he the inspiration for your book?
My PhD, just submitted, is on Owen’s Hebrews commentary, which at 2 million words in length is more than twice as long as the whole Bible. So that has kept me busy, as you might expect! I’ve looked at his major interlocutors and sources, e.g. Socinians (anti-Trinitarians), his use of Jewish material such as Targums and Talmuds, his covenant theology, and his interaction with Roman Catholic exegesis. Post-Reformation exegesis has a bad reputation, but I think Owen has a lot to offer and the reputation is unfair.
I know it might be surprising to some, but no, Owen was not the inspiration for my book on limited atonement, which I’ve tinkered away at for about 15 years. Nor did I come to his commentary because of his doctrine of the cross. I wanted to do research which enabled me to use the Greek and Hebrew I was taught at seminary, but which integrated that somehow with doctrine and history (my undergraduate major at Oxford). Studying an old commentary (I mean, “historical exegesis” or “exegetical history”) seemed like a good way to achieve that integration, and I’ve learned heaps from doing this, and hopefully sharpened my skills while producing something of interest and value in the undiscovered country of seventeenth-century biblical interpretation.
Which arguments that Owen (specifically in The Death of Death) makes do you find to be the most compelling? Which arguments do you find to be the most problematic?
Mike Horton from Westminster Seminary in California first taught me the logical approach to this doctrine when we met in Oxford about 20 years ago, and he stole it entirely from Owen. The atonement must be either:
For all the sins of all people
For some sins of all people
For all the sins of some people
Which is it? Thinking through this question, and the consequences of going down each route, I find quite useful. That being said, I don’t find all the details of Owen’s exegesis of the so-called “problem texts” quite so compelling. But that’s OK, because Reformed exegetes have not had a monolithic, standardised approach to handling those texts, even if they are generally agreed on the doctrine.
When approaching the issue of limited atonement, you mention that the extent of the atonement must be determined by the intent of the atonement. Briefly spell this out for our readers?
The real issue is the design, intent, or purpose of the cross. That’s how theologians such as Berkof, Turretin, Hodge, Boettner, Murray, and Nicole have defined the question. To talk about extent alone could miss this point, and confuse the issue. For example, what is the extent of God’s love? He clearly loves all! Psalm 145:9, Matthew 5:44-45, and 9:36 are sometimes cited for this. Then, people might conclude, Jesus must have died for all, since the cross is about God’s love, surely?
I think this is faulty logic and confused thinking, but it’s an understandable mistake because of the way the question is sometimes put. Asking it a different way can help: What did Jesus come to do? What did the Father send him to do? That can help bring clarity to the debate. The cross achieved what the eternal will of God planned it would. In essence, this is about how God’s eternal plan relates to the cross, and not an argument about whether God loves everybody or not and in what way.
You present four main exegetical arguments for limited atonement, including: those texts which affirm that Christ died for a particular group of people, those texts which present the atonement as actually achieving the salvation of people (and not merely making it possible), those which indicate that Christ’s death purchased and bestows on his people the conditions of salvation (like the gift of faith), and those NT passages that are typological fulfillments of OT texts (like Jesus’ death as the fulfillment of the sacrificial system). Out of these arguments, which one do you feel is the strongest? Are there any other arguments that you did not mention that add greater weight to those presented in your book?
All these different lines of argument really work together. I am persuaded by the texts which particularize what Christ did (he died for his church, his bride, his sheep etc., Ephesians 5, John 10 and so on). If the atonement was truly universal, then the cord of assurance and joy which links me as a sheep to my shepherd in such verses is decisively cut. Why should “he loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20) be any comfort or help to me if he actually loved everyone and gave himself for everyone (even those who will end up in hell)?
People may cavil at some of the verses, or say they don’t logically prove limited atonement. And on their own they may not. But add the sheer number of those kinds of verses to the other lines of scriptural argument, and a fuller picture emerges which shows what the most natural explanation of the verses might be. I wouldn’t hang the whole thing on one or two verses, because I often have wobbles or doubts about my exegesis of particular verses, but the cumulative case gets more and more persuasive every time I look at it, so that keeps it in perspective.
I tried to make my book as comprehensive as I could, while remaining readable but, since you ask, I didn’t say much in there about arguments from covenant theology. That’s a whole other ball game when it comes to controversy! I didn’t want to open that can of worms, so to speak, because it might have put off some people whom I was most intent on reaching with a winsome, gracious presentation of this doctrine. But arguments from the nature of the eternal covenant of redemption between the Father and Son for our salvation (which is a biblical doctrine not well understood or preached these days) have significant weight to them in my view. I just chose not to go into this in the book because I thought I would have to do a lot of work just to argue for the validity of covenant theology first, before we even got to how it relates to the cross.
How does your claim that texts such as 1 John 2:2 (and others) cannot simply be taken at face value without proper interpretation and harmonization of other biblical texts square with the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture? Should we not seek to ascertain the “plain” meaning of a text?
I don’t think John 3:16 says anything about the extent or intent of the atonement. I don’t think that John, when he wrote that verse (or Jesus when he spoke it), was intending to teach us something about the topic of limited atonement as defined by theologians since the 17th century. But it is too easy for us today to read 1st century texts with 17th (or 21st) century spectacles. Why do we ignore the Jew-Gentile division background to 1 John 2:2, and the proto-Gnosticism of John’s opponents, when interpreting that verse for example? Why is it quoted so often as if it just settled a 17th century question in a line (and as if Reformed theologians had forgotten to read 1 John)? I think we need to be careful to understand the plain meaning of a text in its own context, rather than what it might mean if it was spoken by one of us today in an entirely different context and with different presuppositions about what the words might signify.
For example, I don’t think the apostle Peter would have simply said “baptism saves you” (1 Peter 3:21) in an evangelistic sermon to 21st century nominal churchgoers. They’d misunderstand what he meant when he said that to the Christians of Asia Minor in the 1st century. The “plain meaning” of John 6:54 is taken by many Roman Catholics to be that consuming the Mass, understood as transubstantiated bread and wine consecrated by an authorised priest, is essential to salvation. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” James 2:24 was used by many to oppose Luther’s doctrine of justification, because it clearly refutes this nonsense about justification sola fide. But does it, really?
Similarly, there are texts which might appear to us today to be speaking to our specific debates many centuries later, but which in their own context had a completely different plain meaning. It is absolutely vital to grasp that one can use the exact words of scripture and still lead people astray. Context is key.
Come back tomorrow for part 2 of this interview.
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and you can follow his blog at www.gatiss.net.
Lucas Bradburn is book review editor in pastoral theology for Credo Magazine. He is an M.Div. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He is married to Allison and they have two children, Anna and Benjamin. Lucas blogs at Guarding the Truth.