Bahnsen on the Extent of the Atonement

Death of Death in the Death of ChristI recently stumbled across a brief defense of limited atonement written by Greg Bahnsen (Wikipedia | Theopedia) in 1972 (at the age of 23 or 24). His fervency reminded me of Owen’s in Death of Death in the Death of Christ (WTSBooks) and Packer’s in his introductory essay in the same (which is also the eighth chapter in his A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life).

Here are some selections from Bahnsen’s article:

A very unhealthy notion that plagues the fundamentalist church is the idea that Christ laid down his life for each and every individual; that he went to the cross to save all men without exception. Such a view is not consistent with Biblical Christianity. Sometimes a person will acknowledge the total depravity of man, unconditional election of God the Father, prevenient grace of the Spirit and yet deny the particular redemption of Christ; such a position is known as “fourpoint Calvinism” and is as inconsistent as it is unorthodox.

If it be said that before creation the Father singled out in election those whom He destined to save and that the Spirit’s activity of bringing men to repentance and faith is operative (to that extent) only in the lives of God’s elect and yet that Christ offered up His life for the purpose of saving every single individual, then the unity of the Trinity has been forsaken. For in such a case Christ clearly sets out to accomplish what God the Father and Spirit do not intend to do; Christ here would be out of harmony with the will and purpose of the other two persons of the Trinity. Hence anyone who expounds “four-point Calvinism” has inadvertently destroyed the doctrine of the Trinity (by dissolving its unity) and is logically committed to a polytheistic position.

. . .

Particular redemption is the only triune, monotheistic, substitutionary, personal, effectual, and biblical (hence, orthodox) doctrine of Christ’s atonement; all else (including fundamentalism’s redemption for every individual) are doctrines pleasing to men but unsatisfactory in their Theology, anthropology, and soteriology. Sola Scriptura!

Read the whole article.

Now, I agree with the view that Christ died particularly and singularly (as concerns His manward aim) to save His people from their sins. Yet I’m not comfortable going so far as to call the opposing view(s) unorthodox, antitrinitarian, and polytheistic! Perhaps his later expressions were not so audacious. Does anyone know if he wrote on the subject later in life? I’d be curious to find out if he toned it down at all.

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5 Responses to Bahnsen on the Extent of the Atonement

  1. Michael White August 11, 2007 at 4:39 pm #

    I’m not sure if Bahnsen ever softened his tone. I do think his words are too strong. From my reading, the extent of the atonement is a subject of debate among Calvinists. John Davenant, a delegate at the Synod of Dort, did not hold to Bahnsen’s view, nor did a number of theologians at the Westminster Assembly. To take Bahnsen’s view to its logical conclusion, God would also have no desire for the salvation of the non-elect, and this would now call into question the orthodoxy of John Murray, John Piper, and a host of other Calvinist theologians.

    On a side note, I recall a humorous story told told by Tremper Longman which was relayed to him by Robert Gundry. When Dr. Gundry had Bahnsen in his class as a pupil, he found Bahnsen to be unique in that he often took on the role of teacher in the class, rather than student.

  2. Ewan W. Wilson February 11, 2008 at 12:06 pm #

    Having had the privilege of meeting and conversing with Dr Bahnsen and having seen him in action repulse a leading light of a local secular humanist society I can only say the man was one of the few Reformed theological giants of the last century. Little wonder he has been so reviled by those who in their hearts detest the full rigour of the Reformed Faith. Even the conservative Free Church of Scotland could not stomach his full orbed Scriptural Calvinism and in utter absurdity branded him a heretic!
    On the specific question of Limited Atonement, I could not agree more with Dr Bahnsen’s warnings. As has been pointed out elsewhere first generation Four Pointers find subsequent generations lurching almost invariably away from any sovereign grace and into sheer Arminianism. The consequences of these errors must be seen in the long haul; the devastation of the Reformed scene in France and Switzerland is placed firmly at the door of Amyraldians cf Pierre du Moulin; Lucien Rimbault; Jean-Marc Berthold.

  3. Derek Ashton August 29, 2008 at 8:01 am #

    In response to what Ewan has written, I don’t think it wise to hold people responsible for the way subsequent generations mishandle their views. Those who attempt to Scripturally balance the 5 points are doing the Church a much needed service. They are correcting an imbalance in the way Calvinism is interpreted and drawn out to “logical conclusions” that violate Scripture. One must not press Scripture down into a Calvinistic mold. Instead, Calvinism should be expanded to affirm ALL of Scripture, even if it means our minds can’t make complete sense of it (Spurgeon, for example, affirmed that Scripture contains doctrines the human mind cannot logically reconcile but must embrace anyway). Trying to be logically consistent at the expense of Biblical truth is downright dangerous and brings much harm. Bahnsen was awfully close to sinful divisiveness in these remarks, and I would argue that this approach can be just as much a plague as Arminianism. Let us beware of insulting brothers in Christ by insisting on such a reckless and “LIMITED” brand of Calvinism. After all, the focus of Reformed theology is God’s glory, not our mental ability and understanding. That turns it on its head. We Calvinists, believing in total depravity as we do, should not present ourselves as smart, hyper-enlightened people who can figure out the minute details of God’s ways. We should instead be awe-struck by the fact that He sheds a little light on our hearts and amazed by His wonderful workings which Paul calls “unfathomable” and “unsearchable” in Romans 11:33 (concluding his most detailed discussion of the doctrine of election).

    I hope my own comments are not too strong, please offer correction if needed.

  4. Kenneth Ross October 29, 2008 at 4:01 am #

    QUOTE: “Even the conservative Free Church of Scotland could not stomach his full orbed Scriptural Calvinism and in utter absurdity branded him a heretic!”

    Ewan, I might be wrong on this, but my recollection was that the debate over Greg Bahnsen in Scotland was more to do with Reconstructionism / Theonomy, than the intent / extent of the atonement.

  5. vRico November 28, 2016 at 9:21 am #

    As far as Dr. Bahnsen’s tone, I would say in all humor “get in line”. According to my research it was not rare for him to rebuff opposition, I believe it is in fact what made him so effective an Apologist for the Christian faith. I have also noted that in all of Christian history, when looking at the “back and forth” between great scholars or in the writtings of such men you will probably find similar language and strength in tone. One only needs to consider St. Augustine writting against Pelaguis or the famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” by Johnathan Edwards. Dr. Bahnsen often spoke and wrote of his love for his brothers even when he disagreed with them, but when it came to theology he was unapologetic for defending what he believed to be serious errors made by teachers in the church or doctrine that was unbiblical.