There are books which I value greatly, and am edified by. Books that inform and feed the soul. And, there are books I just plain enjoy. I smile when reading them. There is a peculiar delight to be found in them. But rare indeed are those which combine the two as richly and deftly as Austin Brown’s “A Boisterously Reformed Polemic Against Limited Atonement.” It takes a skilled author to write a polemic work which engages in witty “repartee” without crossing over into “rip-apart-thee”, but Brown has done it. To the greater benefit of the Reformed camp of our day in the United States. May it find a wide and receptive audience.
Brown and I share some history. Not personally, I’ve never met the man. But in terms of somewhat shared experience.
Like many in Reformed Protestantism, I was taught that a strict view of Limited Atonement (the L in T.U.L.I.P. and SLA hereafter) was THE Reformed understanding. This view is sometimes labeled the “Owenic” view – after that towering genius of a theologian, John Owen, who for many remains its champion in residence. In truth, I had a very defective understanding of the history of the Church in general, and in the development of some doctrines within Orthodoxy – Limited Atonement in particular. As time and study would prove, many in my circle who would proudly embrace the names, writings and ministries of a John Bunyan, J. C. Ryle, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Davenant (if you restrict yourself to the Banner of Truth edition of his commentary on Colossians which sadly omits his dissertation on the death of Christ), Twisse, Ussher and even John Calvin himself (and a host of other Reformed luminaries) – and tout them as propounders and defenders of SLA – erred. The names above did not embrace SLA. They are misrepresented. And, SLA has never been THE Reformed position. Variations and nuances abound. But we don’t like nuance. We want black and white, concrete absolutism.
The process of moving from a high-Calvinist view of SLA (I differentiate here between High and Hyper Calvinism) to a real and objective atonement for the sins of all – was long, arduous and painful. It came at great cost, especially in terms of pastoral fellowship and relationships. But it has been worth it. Not least because I found that I had been parsing the call of the Gospel in ways which quite frankly, were shameful. In my research, I came upon this from a sermon by Jonathan Edwards: “”Come to Christ and accept salvation. You are invited to come to Christ, heartily to close with Him, and to trust in Him for salvation. If you do so, you shall have the benefit of His glorious contrivance. You shall have the benefit of all, as much as if the whole had been contrived for you alone. God has already contrived everything that is needful for your salvation; and there is nothing wanting but your consent. Since God has taken this matter of the redemption of sinners into His own hand, He has made a thorough work of it. He has not left it for you to finish. Satisfaction is already made; righteousness is already wrought out; death and hell are already conquered. The Redeemer has already taken possession of glory, and keeps it in His hands to bestow on them who come to Him. There were many difficulties in the way, but they are all removed. The Savior has already triumphed over all, and is at the right hand of God to give eternal life to His people. Salvation is already brought to your door; and the Savior stands, knocks, and calls that you would open to Him so that He might bring it to you. There remains nothing but your consent. All the difficulty now remaining is with your own heart. If you perish now, it must be wholly at your door. It must be because you would not come to Christ that you might have life, and because you virtually choose death rather than life.” My heart ached to preach the Gospel like that. But in my circles, some of those expressions would have been looked upon quite dubiously.
But by God’s grace, in time, I was freed. How I wish I had had two helps at the time which are available now: David Allen’s magisterial “The Extent of The Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review.” And Austin Brown’s “boisterously Reformed Polemic.” Dr. Allen’s work thoroughly debunks the myth of SLA being THE Reformed stance. In that regard, it is utterly unassailable. And in Brown’s book, you have a thoughtful dismantling of the logic errors of SLA, along with careful exegesis of the most pertinent passages. The 2 together would have saved me years of personal study. But then again, maybe I needed to read the original sources and work through the exegetical issues on my own. I don’t know.
Now the title itself ought to clue you in that this volume will contain a lot of tongue-in-cheek banter. It does not disappoint. While I found so much of it refreshing and just flat out fun, some of my SLA friends will perhaps be offended. But Brown does not write to wound. He writes in this style to jog and jar the reader out of unquestioned paradigms. It is effective. And don’t let his lightheartedness fool you into thinking his points are not salient and rooted in serious Biblical exposition. It is not theological fluff. But it is intended to point out over and over, the hidden folly behind some of the reasoning and passage twisting which has to go on in defending SLA. And underneath it all, I think I detect an edge which is stained with personal pain. But pain which has yielded sweet fruit. He does not denigrate any person. But he fearlessly attacks ideas. As it should be.
Since I started my journey in this area, I have begun to detect a corrective wave sweeping into our Reformed camp in terms SLA. I fear, lest, like Roger Miller’s old lyric “England swings like a pendulum do”, that some will swing too far in response. In debates like these, both sides are prone to chuck babies and bathwater together. But Brown remains balanced. He rightfully feels the pinch of having been misled (if “lied to” is too strong) about the historical realities of the discussion. I know I feel that way. But it does not lapse into bitterness, even in his discursive “rants.”
When all is said and done, I think there are two target groups this book will help the most. Those like myself a few years ago, who were already recoiling at a Denmarkian odor but were just starting to find out where the smell was coming from. It will save them hours, days, weeks, months and perhaps even years of sorting out tinted exegesis. And those who as new Christians, or at least new to the debate, are confused about where to go with their discomfort. It can spare them a much and not needed theological detour. There is a small 3rd group. Some of my dear brethren who are still in the SLA camp, but can’t quite put their finger on the uneasiness they feel (but never feel they can safely voice) over SLA. May this serve as a beacon drawing them back away from some rocky shores.
If there is one concept I pray each reader could grasp in it all – it would be this: Yes, there are stark antitheses in Scripture. Sin is not righteousness. Dead is not alive. Christ is either God, or not. But there are both/and dynamics at play in Scripture too. So, is Jesus fully God or fully man? Yes. Is Scripture God breathed, or penned by men? Yes. Is the Godhead three, or one? Yes. Did Jesus die for all, or for the elect? Yes. Requiring yes or no answers from questions which cannot be answered fully or properly that way, makes a hash of the Bible. One of the finer skills in Biblical exegesis is determining whether or not you have a true antithesis before you, or a place where only a both/and dynamic answers more truly. Get that in the SLA discussion, and you will have heard Brown – and understood your Bible better. Brother Brown beats that drum a lot. Necessarily so.
Buy this book. Better yet – READ IT!
Davenant hypothetical universalism has been proven incoherent by using its own premises.