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In the testimonies from the ancient fathers, which Owen appends to the following treatise, he quotes Augustine and Prosper as authorities in support of his own view of a definite and effectual atonement. Though these fathers, in opposition to the Pelagians and semi-Pelagians of their day, held this view, the point did not emerge into commanding prominence in the controversy with which their names are chiefly and honourably associated. It was by no means a subject of special controversy, or the key of their position in the field on which their polemical laurels were won. It was otherwise in the dispute which prevailed between Hincmar and Gottschalc, exactly four centuries later. The discussion on the extent of the atonement then assumed a distinct and positive shape. The decisions of the different councils which sat in judgment upon their conflicting principles will be found in the appendix to this treatise. The same controversy was renewed in Holland between the Gomarists and the Arminians, when the Synod of Dort, in one of its articles, condemned the Remonstrant doctrine of a universal atonement. Cameron, the accomplished professor of divinity at Saumur, originated the last important discussion on this point before Owen wrote his treatise on it. The views of Cameron were adopted and urged with great ability by two of his scholars, Amyraut and Testard; and in the year 1634 a controversy arose, which agitated the French Church for many years. Amyraut had the support of Daillé and Blondell. He was ably opposed by Rivet, Spanheim, and Des Marets.
In the last two instances in which discussion on the extent of the atonement revived in the Reformed Churches, there was an essential distinction, very commonly overlooked, between the special points upon which the controversies respectively turned. The object of the article on the death of Christ, emitted by the Synod of Dort, was to counteract the tenet that Christ by the atonement only acquired for the Father a plenary right and freedom to institute a new procedure with all men, by which, on condition of their own obedience, they might be saved. The divines of Saumur would not have accepted this tenet as a correct representation of their sentiments. Admitting that, by the purpose of God, and through the death of Christ, the elect are infallibly secured in the enjoyment of salvation, they contended for an antecedent decree, by which God is free to give salvation to all men through Christ, on the condition that they believe on him. Hence their system was termed hypothetic universalism. The vital difference between it and the strict Arminian theory lies in the absolute security asserted in the former for the spiritual recovery of the elect. They agree, however, in attributing some kind of universality to the atonement, and in maintaining that, on a certain condition, within the reach of fulfilment by all men, — obedience generally, according to the Arminians, and faith, according to the divines of Saumur, — all men have access to the benefits of Christ’s death. To impart consistency to the theory of Amyraut, faith must, in some sense, be competent to all men; and he held, accordingly, the doctrine of universal grace: in which respect his theory differs essentially from the doctrine of universal atonement, as embraced by eminent Calvinistic divines, who held the necessity of the special operation of grace in order to the exercise of faith. The readers of Owen will understand, from this cursory explanation, why he dwells with peculiar keenness and reiteration of statement upon a refutation of the conditional system, or the system of universal grace, according to the name it bore in subsequent discussions. It was plausible; it had many learned men for its advocates; it had obtained currency in the foreign churches; and it seems to have been embraced by More, or Moore, to whose work on “The Universality of God’s Free Grace,” our author replies at great length.
Thomas Moore is described by Edwards, in his “Gangræna,” part ii. p. 86, as “a great sectary, that did much hurt in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire; who was famous also in Boston, Lynn, and even in Holland, and was followed from place to place by many.” His work, in a quarto volume, was published in 1643; and in the same year a reply to it appeared from the pen of 141Thomas Whitefield, “Minister of the Gospel at Great Yarmouth.” Mr Orme remarks, “He takes care to inform us on the title-page that ‘Thomas Moore was late a weaver at Wills, near Wisbitch.’ ” And he adds, in regard to Moore’s production, “Without approving of the argument of the work, I have no hesitation in saying that it is creditable to the talents of the weaver, and not discreditable to his piety.” The weaver, it should be added, was the author of some other works: “Discovery of Seducers that Creep into Houses,” “On Baptism,” “A Discourse about the Precious Blood and Sacrifice of Christ,” etc.
In 1650, Mr Horne, minister at Lynn in Norfolk, a man, according to Palmer (Nonconf. Mem., iii. pp. 6, 7), “of exemplary and primitive piety,” and author of several works, published a reply to Owen’s work, under the title, “The Open Door for Man’s Approach to God; or, a vindication of the record of God concerning the extent of the death of Christ, in answer to a treatise on that subject by Mr John Owen.” Horne had considerable reputation for skill in the oriental languages, and “some of his remarks and interpretations of Scripture,” in the judgment of Mr Orme, “were not unworthy of Owen’s attention.” Owen, however, in his epistle prefixed to his “Vindiciæ Evangelicæ,” expresses his opinion that the work of Horne did not deserve a reply.
Two years after the following work had been published, its author had to defend some of the views he had maintained in it against a more formidable and celebrated adversary. Richard Baxter, in an appendix to his “Aphorisms on Justification,” took exception to some of the views of Owen on redemption. Owen answered him in a treatise which may be regarded as an appendix to his “Death of Death.” In the discussions between them, so much of scholastic subtilty appears on both sides that little interest is likely to be felt in that department of the general question on which they were at variance.
It may be necessary to state precisely what opinion Owen really held on the subject of the extent of the atonement. All opinions on this point may, in general terms, be reduced to four. There are a few who hold that Christ died so as ultimately to secure the salvation of all men. There are others who maintain the view condemned by the Synod of Dort, that by the death of Christ God is enabled to save all or any, on condition of their obedience. There is a third party, who, while they believe that Christ died so as infallibly to secure the salvation of the elect, hold that inasmuch as Christ, in his obedience and sufferings, did what all men were under obligation to do, and suffered what all men deserved to suffer, his atonement has a general as well as a special aspect and reference, in virtue of which the offer of the gospel may be freely tendered to them. Lastly, there are those, and Owen amongst the number, who advocate a limited or definite atonement, such an atonement as implies a necessary connection between the death of Christ and the salvation of those for whom he died, while the actual bearing of the atonement on the lost is left among the things unrevealed, save only that their guilt and punishment are enhanced by the rejection of that mercy offered in the gospel. Hagenbach, in his “History of Doctrines,” vol. ii. p. 255, strangely asserts, that “as regards the extent of the atonement, all denominations, with the exception of the Calvinists, hold that salvation was offered to all.” It would be difficult to specify any Calvinists worthy of the name who hold that salvation should not be offered to all; and it seems needful to state that Owen at least, a very Calvinist of Calvinists, held no such view. On the contrary, among Calvinists that adhere to the doctrine of a definite atonement, it has been matter of debate, not whether the gospel should be universally offered, but on what basis, — the simple command and warrant of the Word, or the intrinsic and infinite sufficiency of the atonement, — the universal offer of the gospel proceeds. Perhaps this point was never formally before the mind of our author, but he intimates that the “innate sufficiency of the death of Christ is the foundation of its promiscuous proposal to the elect and reprobate.”
Among the editions of this valuable work, that printed in Edinburgh, 1755, under the superintendence of the Rev. Adam Gib, deserves honourable mention. It is printed with some care; considerable attention is paid to the numeration; and a valuable analysis of the whole work is prefixed to it. We have not felt at liberty to adopt the numeration in all respects, as rather more of freedom is used with the original than is consistent with the principles on which this edition of Owen’s works has been issued. We acknowledge our obligations to it in the preparation of the subjoined analysis, which is mostly taken from it.
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