Limbo and Limited Atonement: Two Churches, Semper Reformanda

September 14, 2007

I’ve been listening (multiple times) to the fascinating lectures by T. F. Torrance, provided by Ben Myers at his blog. In these lectures, Torrance covers a pretty wide gamut of fundamental theological concerns, arguing for his (briefly put) realist correlation between the knowing subject (man) and the God who makes himself known in Jesus Christ, whose homoousian with God, together with the Spirit (likewise homoousian with God) given to man, is the grounding for a realist epistemology, analogous to contemporary scientific theory where the objective pole of the subject-object correlation (the physical universe; or, in theology, Trinitarian revelation) is the ground and corrective to our knowledge and speech of such. Torrance does a breathtaking sweep and renunciation of Schillebeeckx’s Christology as erringly grounded in a Kantian-transcendental Thomist speculative knowing, mediated by the Church, wherein we receive a non-conceptual knowledge of God as mediated through human institutions (church, language, etc.) but not in-himself wherein God alone controls the means by which he is known. Confessional statements of the church are, according to both Schillebeeckx and Torrance, subject to error and revisable, but, according to Torrance, only a Trinitarian realist epistemology can provide a valid grounding for considering the church’s confession, as Schillebeeckx is incapable of properly delimiting the divine from the anthropological. Now, that is just a brief and incomplete (and likely incorrect in parts) presentation of Torrance’s argument, and I have a feeling that he overstates his case (a common Reformed tendency). As well, I don’t pretend to have a good grasp of his argument for conceptual v. non-conceptual knowing (and the auditive nature of God’s revealing). But I did find it fascinating to consider the grounds for which the church’s confession can be revised. In particular, Torrance uses the example of the classical Reformed doctrine of Limited Atonement as an example of a heresy that must be denounced as such among the Calvinist churches. His argument for the heretical nature of Limited Atonement rests with its reading “behind the back of God” (a favorite illustration of Torrance), and apart from Christ, a doctrine of reprobation, which is negated in Torrance’s soteriology by virtue of Christ’s homoousian with man, such that his very person as the God-man is his work of atonement for all men. In other words, all humans are redeemed by virtue of sharing the same humanity that Christ took and redeemed. And, once again, Jesus’ homoousian with God grounds our trust and ability to speak of God and his work for men. Of course, we hear echoes of Barth in his presentation of Election, and what is interesting (and what prompted me to write this post) is how thoroughly this critique of Limited Atonement has been accepted in the mainline Reformed churches where the Synod of Dordt and (for the Church of Scotland and the PCUSA) the Westminster Confession still serve as church confessions (thus questioning the legitimacy of retaining such confessions unreformed on these points, but not on others, e.g. Pope is the Antichrist). Nevertheless, the full-scale acceptance of Barth, Brunner, Berkouwer, and Torrance as legitimately “Reformed” thinkers in their ecclesial bodies while they rejected, in the past, a non-negotiable fundamental of Calvinism is a great good for the wider church and an excellent example of a church reforming itself in light of legitimate dogmatic developments (of course, the PCA, OPC, Free C of S, et al. object at precisely this point among others) . I think we can find an analogous situation in the Roman Catholic Church in relation to the doctrine of Limbo. The 20th century revival in Catholic dogmatics (in both its transcendental Thomist and Ressourcement forms) and exegesis has committed the Catholic Church to a greater engagement with the sources and grounds for Church dogmas. Thanks to the work of Henri de Lubac among others, Limbo has been determined as a theological speculation, allowable within Catholic thinking but believed by most to be based upon faulty theological premises (namely, the range of God’s [extra]sacramental operation and the beatitude of man apart from God). I could go into it in more detail (and perhaps in the future) but I must finish. So, in close, granted that the methods necessarily differ between Reformed and Catholic dogmatics (including the range of reform), I find the cases of Limited Atonement and Limbo to be heartening examples of the two churches re-evaluating their teachings in light of a renewed commitment to thinking within the Trinitarian revealing of God and offering correctives to past speaking about God as determined by that Revelation.

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