by David Allen
This work has been a labor of love over the past ten years. The extent of the atonement and its entailments are vital to me as a theologian and preacher. The issue touches very near the heart of the gospel. What one believes about this subject has serious ramifications for both theology and praxis in the church. The necessity of getting the gospel right is basal in my thinking.
The question of the extent of the atonement is controversial and often engenders strong emotion. Some people on either side of the fence tenaciously cling to their view and anathematize opponents. Perhaps one reason for this visceral reaction is the fact that a via media on the extent question is not possible. There are only two options: either Jesus substituted for the sins of all people, or he substituted for the sins of only some people. The subject is delicate but important and must be considered.
Any attempt to cover all the vast literature on this subject can only be judged as ambition on steroids. This work is not a comprehensive treatment. Such is beyond my ability and beside my purpose. I strive for the modest goal of a survey of the lay of the land. I hope to furnish information and sources to enable you to pursue the subject more in depth.
I have attempted to identify and clarify the significant matters in the history of the discussion and to present them in historical context for consideration. Some topics have received less treatment than others. Some of the intricate nuances of the issue I have treated in greater detail, especially where the necessity of linguistic precision requires such. In these latter sections, I trust you will pack a sufficient amount of patience to wade through the issues.
I have written this book as a historian/theologian/preacher rather than as a polemicist. Of course, no author can bring a tabula rasa to the table when writing. Each brings his own paradigm and writes from a particular perspective. I have endeavored to present the issue fairly and with intellectual integrity. Every page is stained with the breath of prayer that I not misrepresent God, his word, or those who have preceded me in theological pursuit. Nevertheless, a final section of this work is a substantive critique of limited atonement. In the final analysis, I believe limited atonement to be a doctrine in search of a text.
I take it for granted that all agree Scripture is the final arbiter on this issue. We must not confuse Scripture with our interpretation of Scripture. The former is infallible. The latter is not. When biblical evidence is presented, such evidence can only be effectively countered if it can be demonstrated that the text is not relevant to the issue at hand or that the text has been misinterpreted exegetically within its context.
There is much misinformation floating around on the question of the extent of the atonement. As a result of loose thought habits, too much reductionist thinking abounds. There is also great need for disambiguation. The relevant information needs to be separated from the irrelevant; the essential from the nonessential.
The problems that obtrude themselves in a study of this nature are legion. In my attempt to thresh the grain, I hope I have not gotten my britches caught on my own pitchfork.
David Allen is dean of the School of Theology, professor of preaching, and director of the Center of Biblical Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review. Order a copy at LifeWay, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Christianbook.com. Request a faculty review copy here.