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FOR OUR REDEMPTION: The Scope of the Atonement

FOR OUR REDEMPTION: The Scope of the Atonement

By Roger Salter
May 8, 2017

It is a Reformation Anglican dictum that the meaning of the Cranmerian liturgy (BCP1662) is to be interpreted by the doctrine of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Liturgy adapts theology to praise and worship. It enunciates divine truth as something beyond profession of the lips to possession in the heart. Both acts, theological endeavor and the veneration of God, are doxological. They explore and express the glory of of the Lord. Both engage the full powers of the mind and heart (awareness and affection). Each is determined in its character by revealed truth. The Word of God informs both theology and worship with sense and sentiment that are orthodox, with thought and understanding in accord with the mind of God, and with reality as it is disclosed and discovered in Him. Theology is not made up. It is gleaned and gathered from Scripture. Praise is not hyped up by human imagination and excitement. It is prompted by the Holy Spirit in meditation upon God.

"It is impossible to honor God as we ought, unless we know him as he is" (Stephen Charnock). We know God from the Bible. It is imperative that our doctrine and devotion should be biblical.

Theology pursues accuracy. In that accuracy liturgy assumes charitable supposition towards all participants, greeting them as honest partakers of Christ and his benefits, and warning all that only sincere faith gains the blessings of the means of grace as they are administered (not everyone in attendance receives the word of God, not all who are baptized are children of God, not all communicants feed inwardly upon Christ). The language of liturgy is of necessity general and provisionally inclusive. It addresses a company of people of whom the spiritual state of each individual cannot be infallibly known. To be effective to the true believer, or convictive to the unconverted, liturgy must express itself in terms of the ideal i.e. all are present for the right reason, all are open actually or prospectively to the influences of grace.

The explanation of charitable supposition eases some of the concerns raised by Anglican liturgy in the minds of those not familiar with its use. The net of the liturgy and sacrament is seemingly more extensive than the actual size of the catch hauled in by the effective grace of God (For many are called but few are chosen. Matthew 22:14). The mystery of election to the human mind requires a certain flexibility on our part as to the presence of grace in certain instances. Ultimate judgment is God's (The Lord knows who are his, 2 Timothy 2:19). We are to guard the integrity of ministry but where the facts concerning certain persons in a congregation are not entirely clear we are not to be over scrupulous. Consciences must be addressed, but a judgmental tendency must be suppressed. In the end people are accountable to God in their own approach to him.

It is a pity that Puritanism, by and large, was a little over zealous in its assessment of the BCP. Precisionism as a movement was too precise. Puritan-minded men such as Grindal, Ussher, Hall, Preston, Trapp, and Gurnell had no problem in their attachment to Anglicanism, nor should any Reformed believer aware of the myriad subtle nuances of the Reformation and Puritan eras. Soteriology trumps all other concerns in the matter of achieving unity (John Bunyan as a Baptist showed the way with his open pastoral policy on baptism, and Paul Helm cultivates mutual respect between paedo-Baptists and credo-Baptists in his examination of both points of view).

There are just some issues where it is not wise to be too insistent when there is large agreement on matters of major importance for the proclamation of the kingdom and the wooing of souls. The finer points of ecclesiology and denominational preference are not to be over-emphasized, because to some degree they are inferential and even speculative and they blossom into sour prejudice.

Anglicanism in its authentic and constitutional guise is Reformed catholicism, comprehending the Christian wisdom and orthodoxy of the centuries since the apostolic era. It heeds the Fathers but not slavishly. Cranmer, Jewel, Ussher, Toplady, (and the Baptist John Gill) were among the great scholars of the Patristic period and conserved its best ideas. The creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian) and earlier church councils are fundamental to Anglicanism. Great voices down the ages still echo in the beliefs and proclamation of Anglicans (Augustine, Fulgentius, Anselm, Thomas, Bernard, Ratramnus (via Ridley), Gregory of Rimini (via Peter Martyr). The Reformation restored and established soteriological clarity. The Anglican Church is in essence a Reformed Church and a member of the Reformed fraternity, and it would be manifestly so if boldly true to its heritage. But Anglicanism also has its own charm in its pastoral tone, its inoffensive and amusing English temper wherever it flourishes, and its innocent aesthetics. Some of its embellishments are attractive adornments to a winsome Christian witness (truth and taste). It is not, in intention, philistine or legalistic. It is the product, in its Refomational stance, of Euro-Anglo collaboration and the seed-bed of a godly ecumenism.

William Hastie, erstwhile Professor of Divinity in the University of Glasgow, and hence a Presbyterian, opines: . . . the great achievement of the English Church in thus far (1904) maintaining its form of Christianity among the bulk of the people and the higher classes, the accurate learning of its scholars, the valuable contributions of its theologians to apologetics, biblical criticism, and exegetical, historical, and homiletical theology, not withstanding the vacillation and weakness of its doctrinal development (2017) are all frankly recognized and appreciated by the other branches of the Reformed Church. The ecclesiastical ideal of its reformers was to make the Church of England the living centre and rallying point of all the Reformed Churches; and if its leaders and guides were to take up this splendid conception again and endeavor to realize it, they might be blessed in doing the greatest work for the Reformed Protestantism that the world has seen since the age of the Reformation (Theology of the Reformed Church, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1904, Pages 97-98).

A recurrent reservation concerning Anglicanism's credentials as a Reformed Church arises from the following asseveration found in the Prayer of Consecration for the Communion Service 1662 and some revisions: Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world;

For many Reformed and non-Reformed believers the conclusion is drawn that Anglicanism advocates a doctrine of universal redemption. It is therefore alleged that the statement in the Communion Liturgy is conspicuously divergent from the teaching of Article XVII that outlines the church's Confessional position on Predestination. Consistent Calvinism, it is said, must subscribe to the principle of Definite Redemption (often misleadingly and unfortunately termed as "limited atonement"). Conscientious contemporary Christians of a Reformed persuasion often point to a compromised stand on doctrine that they deplore somewhat harshly or to which they cannot reconcile themselves for full allegiance to the Anglican Communion.

In the early stages of the Reformation this particular issue was not a point of specific discussion let alone contention. Briefly, it became prominent through the influence of Theodore Beza, for one, and resolution was sought through the deliberations of the Synod of Dort at which several Anglican delegates were present whose contributions were highly influential and perhaps moderating in emphasis at certain points.

The appointed representatives from England were Joseph Hall, Dean of Worcester at the time and afterwards Bishop of Norwich (who had to depart prematurely due to illness), John Davenant, Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge and subsequently Bishop of Salisbury (who ordained George Herbert to his parish ministry at Bemerton), Samuel Ward, Archdeacon of Taunton, and also Theological Professor in the University of Cambridge, and George Carleton, Bishop of Llandaff. Walter Balcanequal of Scotland represented the Established Church of North Britain. Each of these men upheld the conclusions of the Synod very firmly thereafter. The correspondence exchanged between Hall and Davenant expresses unequivocally their united conviction that the Articles of Dort were in full agreement with the convictions of Anglicanism. (Thomas Goad, Hall's replacement at the Synod, changed his views from Calvinist to Arminian).

At the Synod each of the delegates from the Church of England earnestly ensured that the universal offer of the gospel was included in the final declarations of Dort and this most certainly is the case: "But as many as are invited by the gospel, are invited sincerely (or in earnest, serio). For sincerely and most truly God shows in his word, what is pleasing to him; namely, that they who are called should come to him. And he sincerely promises to all who come to him, and believe, the peace of their souls and eternal life."

As to the death of Christ the findings of Dort state: "This death of the Son of God is a single and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; of infinite value and price, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world."

Sufficiency is the precise point established in the BCP Prayer of Consecration. "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). There recognized, is the the infinite worth of the precious blood of the Lord Jesus. Here again, the unlimited value of Christ's sacrifice is stated by the apostle: "And he himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world" (1John 2:2). The liturgical statement of the BCP merely repeats the words of Holy Scripture. It may then be debated as to whether the language of the Bible includes every human individual ever born, or all classes and types from every nation and race. John Baptist for example, was addressing a Jewish audience when he identified Jesus as the Lamb, and perhaps that was the gist of what he said - universalism in an international and world-wide sense rather than mercy to Israel almost exclusively with a sprinkling of Gentiles. It is possible, and it often happens, that the term "world" does not embrace each and every individual in the world. It refers to the "spread" of population without absolute specificity or total inclusiveness.

The concern of the Anglican delegates to Dort was that particularism should not prevent the preaching of the gospel to every creature. The heaven-wrought success of the gospel magnifies the grace of God in the sweet allurement and conversion of souls. The earthly refusal of the gospel reveals the sinful hostility and hardness of the human heart left to its own devices. The preached word facilitates the mercy and judgment of God in their ultimate and absolute expression on the final day. The gospel exalts the gracious gift of faith enabled by effectual calling. It also lays bear the obduracy of natural man and his rebel heart. "So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall accomplish what I please, and shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11).

The gospel is universal. Everyone is assured that in coming to Christ they will be saved - whosoever will. The grace and gift of salvation is particular, for all human beings, in their natural state, will unfailingly cast it aside and spurn it as unnecessary or undesirable. The love of God in election is an overplus of his goodness and mercy which is efficient in its wooing and drawing of the chosen to himself.

"Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whoso ever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. Which promise ought to be announced and proposed, promiscuously and indiscriminately, to all nations and men to who God, in his good pleasure hath sent the gospel, with the command to repent and believe. But because many who are called by the gospel do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this doth not arise from defect or insufficiency of the sacrifice offered by Christ on the cross, but from their own fault (John 3:19-20, 5::44, Hebrew 3:5). But as many as truly believe, and through the death of Christ are delivered and saved from sin and condemnation, this benefit comes from the sole grace of God, which he owes to no man, given them in Christ from eternity".

Confessionally and liturgically, Anglicanism is free of any fault in the manner in which it construes the doctrine of the atonement but some insist on alleging that it is tainted with Amyraldianism. It is true that there are open and self-confessed Amyraldians within the Anglican communion but this in no way indicates that Hypothetical Universalism in any of its forms is integral to Anglican theology.

Moses Amyrald (Amyraut) (1596-1664) was a French Calvinist theologian who proposed a particular notion of Hypothetical Universalism which propounds the view that God decrees the salvation of all men and sent his Son into the world to die exactly to that end. Ideally Christ was sacrificed for all. But divine recognition of the fact that all would inevitably scorn the compassion of God determined his following resolution to establish faith as the appropriate way of grasping salvation and to ensure that an elect number, granted the gift of faith, would be the definite beneficiaries of the atonement wrought by Christ.

Such a sentiment maintaining that there is a universal disposition in God for the salvation for all is not alien to orthodox Calvinism. Such luminaries as Prosper, Baxter, Dabney, and Spurgeon, among many others, have posited the perspective that God prefers the wellbeing of all, but these authorities carefully differentiate between God's will of desire and his will of decree. It is asserted that with loftier purposes in mind than the total reclamation of mankind the Lord distinguishes between those who will be favored in Christ as head of the elect and those who will be passed by and left in their antipathy to God and preference for sin for the display of his justice.

Amyrald's sensibilities were close to those of many in the traditional Reformed fold. The problem consists in the fact that they are are expressed in decretal mode as a revised intention of God.

The established order of the "divine decrees" commences with the recognition of the absolute helplessness of sinful man and therefore proceeds to an unconditional election of undeserving sinners sovereignly selected for salvation (the alternatives being Supra - or Infra-lapsarian). The scheme of Amyraldianism begins with a divine decree to save all through the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ. This is an unstable view of the mind of God who seemingly is forced to amend his salvific plan due to the stubbornness of mankind's fallen will. It suggests that the "first" intent of God is eventually defeated. Universal salvation is not attained by the death of Christ and the Father has, in fact, to "re-decree" the efficacy of the sacrifice of the Son to the elect.

Great caution has to exercised in analyzing and ordering the decrees of God, for in reality there is only one single decree in the mind of God that the acumen of man cannot successfully fathom and finds it necessary to separate into a semblance of rational progression. Amyraut inadvertently falls foul of probing the infinite and unsearchable, just as the debate between supra-lapsarians and infra-lapsarians ought to be more moderate or laid to rest. There is no valuable moral merit in pushing particularism to the limit simply for its own sake. From all practical, preaching, and pastoral considerations God, his pastors, and all who serve the kingdom are dealing with mankind as victims of the fall not as speculators in theology. "Does it save" is the rule for Christian ministry and outreach (William Cunningham).

Whatever the verdict on Amyraut it is beyond doubt that he was a true Augustinian and worthy servant of the Lord. Distinguished Anglicans were close to him in mood but not one with him in doctrine. The majority could heartily subscribe the Canons of Dort as did the original delegates. Ussher, Davenant, Preston, Hall maintained a generous understanding of the blood shedding, each with their varying subtle shades of emphasis.

The popular simplification of the matter, barring perplexities and inconsistencies in individual presentation, seems satisfactory. The belief of Reformational Anglicanism according to its formularies is that the redemption wrought by Christ is sufficient for all, applied to all who sincerely come, and efficient in the elect. The sovereignty and honor of God, and the responsibility of man, are maintained.

If I a reprobate must be.
The blame, O Lord, lies with me.
If I refuse to hear your voice
I am the maker of that choice

And warrant my eternal hurt
With stubborn failure to convert.
You do not wish to do me ill.
Hell's pains are due to my free will.

But by your grace may I aspire
To count you as my chief desire.
Grant me the gift of true belief
and by your gospel bring relief.

To seek you, Lord, I cannot start
Unless you prepare my helpless heart.
I have no capacity to commence,
You must quicken my torpid sense.

Lord have mercy is my plea,
These words alone allowed to me.
There is no worthy argument
Save your gospel call well meant.

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

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