A Diplomatic Review of "A Boisterous Polemic"

[Updated 5/8/2023, see footnote 3]

For whom did Christ die? A "5-point" Calvinist will answer, "for the elect only". A "4-point" or "moderate" Calvinist will answer "for everyone, but especially for the elect." "
A Boisterously Reformed Polemic Against Limited Atonement", by Austin C. Brown, looks at the evidence for each answer and comes down on the side of the moderate Calvinist.

For the sake of brevity, I will use "5P" and "4P" to refer to the respective five point and four point positions.

My first observation, which should not be controversial, is that there is a typo in the Kindle version on page 190/191: "This happened to me twice. Once during the examination process
to be become a deacon in the RPCNA and during my examination...". My remaining observations, save the penultimate, will be in areas where I think Brown could present a stronger argument. The next to last observation will be in the way of personal application.

In chapter 2, Brown considers whether or not the 5P offer of the gospel to all is genuine. After all, if Christ did not die for the non-elect, then one cannot truly say to them that "Christ died for your sins." The 5P response to this is that since we don't know who is or isn't elect, our ignorance allows us to present the offer of the gospel to all. While Brown effectively rebuts this response, he misses what, to me, is a deeper problem: namely, that the 5P presenter of the gospel is doing it as if they are speaking to the person, instead of God speaking through them to the person. The offer of the Gospel is "thus says the Lord", not "what I'm telling you is..." (Phil 2:13, 2 Cor 5:20). God does not offer the gospel to all in ignorance, so ignorance cannot be used by the 5P as an excuse.

In chapter 6, Brown considers the question, "But if it is strenuously asserted that Christ did not in fact die for the non-elect, as he does, then how is Christ’s death perfectly sufficient for the non-elect?" One side views Christ's death as being salvific only. To my mind, this is an example of rigid either/or thinking when, in fact, Christ's death is salvific for the elect and perditional for the non-elect. The blood that saves is also the blood that damns. The saved embrace the blood (and the one who shed it), the lost reject the blood (and the one who shed it). The Judge need not consider such lesser offenses such as adultery, cheating, theft, lying, eating shellfish, or working on the sabbath. Judgement will be made on what was done with Christ's blood (Heb. 10:29). Christ says to all, "I died for you." The elect will say, "I believe you." The rest will say, "I don't believe you."

In the same chapter, Brown also writes, "In the minds of strict particularists, the phrase ‛Christ died for X’ necessarily requires X to be saved. That is the hill they die on." This is arguably the most important sentence in the entire book. And yet the book doesn't get to the root of why the 5P think this is true and the 4P think it is false.

To dig more deeply, "atonement" needs to be defined (which the book does not do!). Let us assume that "atonement" means "reconciliation". This is, after all, the obsolete definition according to Merriam-Webster. Both sides might agree that the Cross reconciles God to man. But salvation entails not only the reconciliation between God and man, but the reconciliation between man and God. For the atonement to be salvific, then, it must guarantee regeneration, because only through regeneration is man reconciled to God.

So does the atonement guarantee regeneration? The 4P might answer with 2 Cor 5:19-20:

... that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

That is, the Cross offers forgiveness, but does not guarantee reconciliation. The 4P would then say that election guarantees reconciliation

The book does try to address how the 5P might show that atonement guarantees reconciliation. Part of the Q&A in chapter 14 asks why penal substitution is so important and the answer is “because it infallibly saves.” Owen’s “Trilemma” is presented then dismantled (how it ever survived Mt. 12:31-32 is a mystery to me.) But Brown then writes, “… the particularist will have to run his logic down a different path” and, agrees with Trueman, that Owen’s argument isn’t a strong component of limited atonement. So the book takes another path and runs down the covenant of redemption argument.

But I don’t think the book takes all of the paths available to the particularist. The 5P may not be happy with the “mystery of God’s multiple purposes in the atonement” argument (even though it’s the right answer) as long as there is still a shred of logic to cling to. Remove Owen's Trilemma and the covenant of redemption and the 5P can still offer the "
ordo salutis," the "order of salvation". St. Paul gives an "order of salvation" in Romans 5:29-30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Clearly, there is foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying, and glorifying. Paul joins these elements with the Greek word καί, which can mean, among other things "and" or "then". The Reformers take this order to be "then": God did this, then God did that, then God did the other. Therefore, getting the order correct is paramount and the 5P have the order right and the Amyraldians, Arminians, and Lutherans have it wrong. Because, in their scheme, election precedes justification, the atonement is under the "umbrella" of election, and therefore the atonement is only for the elect which means that it guarantees regeneration.

This views God as acting sequentially. But God is not bound by time, nor does He act in ways that are familiar to us. Another view is to see God acting in parallel: God does this and God does that and God does the other. Viewed sequentially, the order is important. Viewed in parallel, the order doesn't matter. Logically, A
then B is not the same as B then A. But A and B is the same as B and A.

So one option is to hold to the sequential view and place the atonement after election, another option is to take the parallel view, reject the
ordo salutis altogether as being scripturally unfounded, place atonement and election together, and let scripture decide what God is actually doing.

My opinion is that the root of their arguments is not Owen’s Trilemma, or the covenant of redemption, but the “ordo salutis”. Uproot that, and I don’t know what else they can appeal to.

Chapter 9 deals with whether "all" means "each and every" or "some of every kind". It should be noted that "elect" and "non-elect" are distinctions. So if a 5P says "all" means "all people without distinction," then that must include some from the elect and non-elect! The 5P is then forced to say "without distinction except for ...". The argument can't support its own weight.

Chapter 12 brings up the issue of whether or not God loves the non-elect. Brown cites a pastor who asks:

If the omnipotent God loves someone, He saves him. How could He not? What kind of love permits one’s beloved to perish, when it is in his power to save him?

We get all tangled up in whether love refers to priority of choice [Lk 14:26, Rom 9:16] or affection [Rom 12:10], or desire for the good of the beloved [Lk. 6:35]. How could God love those whom He will destroy? I think we forget that God will bring everyone safely to their home. Both the "objects of devotion" and "objects of wrath" will be brought to their intended place. C. S. Lewis' "
The Great Divorce" may be instructive here since it presents the idea that the damned wouldn't be happy in heaven. U. K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas [.pdf]" presents this in even starker terms. "Omelas" is a must read.

The desire of God is also mentioned. Brown cites Gerstner who writes:

God, if He could be frustrated in His desires, simply would not be God.

I suspect this is in reference to 1 Tim 2:4. Those who cite 1 Tim 2:4 and opine on God's desires almost never include Lamentations 3:32-33:

Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.

To be fair, Brown does try to address this in chapter 13:

But as all theologians worth their salt know, there’s a hierarchy of desires in the purposes of God, and some of these desires don’t ultimately express themselves due to his prioritizing other ends.

But that doesn't have the impact of the passage in Lamentations.

In chapter 16, Brown writes:

Years of interacting with strict particularists has utterly convinced me that there’s a palpable, prideful blindness at play when it comes to this subject.

Possibly. But it might also be that they proudly wear their team colors and can have no comity with team Arminius. Team colors are important to the Reformed. Last Sunday, communion was offered to everyone who "is a member of an evangelical church." Afterwards, I asked "who does evangelical include and, more importantly, who does it exclude?" It excludes Roman Catholics, even though some Catholics are members of the body of Christ, just like some Presbyterians are. Sometimes we forget that we aren't saved because we hold to correct doctrine. St. Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus and then spent years getting his doctrinal act together.

On a personal note, I will be going though the ordination process of the PCA. On the one hand, the PCA seems to forbid ordination to those who deny that Christ died only for the elect
1. On the other hand, the PCA misreads the Westminster Confession of Faith. At least one third of the assembly consisted of "moderate" Calvinists. The Confession was a consensus document written such that both sides could, in good conscience, sign it2. But the 5P read it as if it excludes the 4P, while the 4P read it as if it includes them. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. Especially since we have all three volumes of Hodge's "Systematic Theology" in our church library.

I give the book a solid 4 out of 5 stars. Buy it, read it, engage with it.

Minutes of the Nineteenth General Assembly, pgs. 84, 537, 548-552, 554, ...
[2] "Polemic" doesn't make this explicit, but it can be deduced from the footnotes. See also Allen's "
The Extent of the Atonement", and Letham's "The Westminster Assembly".
[3] The author and I have discussed this review in the comments to
this post on his website The Sound of Doctrine. I updated this review to reflect his concerns.
[4] The Arminian would say that it is man's response to the gospel that brings reconciliation. It's important to show that there is a non-Arminian option to the "ordo", which is something the 5P have trouble acknowledging.
[5] Brown, like all authors, struggled with what to leave in and what to omit. He made the judgement call that it was sufficient to include Owen's Trillemma and the covenant of redemption and omit the "ordo".

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