Tag Archives: calvinism

A Song About Limited Atonement That Is Almost As Horrible As the Doctrine

OK, apologies for making you watch this, but it’s related to the current series and we could maybe use a diversion. So this song is awful, obviously, but in addition to sounding like a Green Day tribute band made up of toilet bowls, it’s also an egregious presentation of atonement theology. Not only are they celebrating a truly problematic and ugly doctrine, they misrepresent its content and then throw endless Bible verses at us hoping we won’t notice. The makers of this video try their darnedest to come across like open-minded theology nerds who are picking on both Arminians and Calvinists, but they are clearly defenders of Calvin’s work. A major clue is the way they try to relabel his “Limited Atonement” with the more palatable moniker “Definite Atonement.” That’s pure R.C. Sproul right there.

We probably won’t get this specific when we talk about Calvin’s atonement theology in an upcoming post, so if you’re not familiar with Limited Atonement here’s the rundown: This doctrine asserts that the “atonement” achieved by Jesus’ death on the cross was “limited” and effective only for those whom God preordained (or elected) before time to eventually believe in it. That is, it is for true Christians only and not for “the world” or for “all” as the Bible seems to state. Hardcore Calvinists will not tell people “Jesus died for you,” because they cannot be sure that it is true. Why would anyone believe in such a nightmare? For defenders of Reformed Theology, it is all about preserving God’s honor and “sovereignty.” It is all about God’s “design” for atonement and its perfect fulfillment, and it boils down to this: because Calvinists view sin and salvation in strictly legal terms, and because they see such immovable obstacles between humans and God, even on this side of Easter, they cannot abide the thought that an ounce of Jesus’ blood might have been spilled for anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Of course, they’ll insist, none of us deserves it, but the elect receive it because they have been chosen to receive it. Everyone else is out of luck.

Again, all of this can only possibly make any sense within the harsh and abstract dimension of theological theory. This is the magical realm where sin is a legal problem to be managed, not a fundamental problem of human relationship. Where repentance is a ritual one must perform in pursuit of forgiveness, not a lifelong journey of discovery and enlightenment. Where Jesus’ death is a puppet show to accomplish “God’s will,” not the tragic murder of the son of man. Where salvation affords passage into a happy afterlife for those fortunate enough to broker a deal, not the rescue and redemption of every molecule in all creation. And where only a special group get to call themselves “God’s children,” not everyone and everything in existence.  

The video goes on to invoke the “ransom” theology we observed in the gospels, because this is what the Bible actually says instead of touting Penal Substitution or Limited Atonement. But the picture of Jesus giving his life to free his captive people is far more beautiful and meaningful than anything in TULIP or PSA, and it seems like an odd fit here. Are we all imprisoned, and yet God has only seen fit to rescue some of us? Substitutionary punishment is a horrific notion, but at least it lends itself to an individualistic theology like Calvinism. Ultimately, the biggest problem with election theology, as far as I can see, is that the person teaching you about it always assumes they have been elected. Beware of “insider” religion. If it’s not good news for everyone, it’s not good news.

And yes, this was going to be a fun post when I started writing it. Sorry. 🙂


The Utilitarian Trinitarian

These are some ideas I sketched out after church on Trinity Sunday. They may or may not warrant a post, but here we are.

Hey, Christians. Real talk. What’s the deal with the Trinity? Isn’t it kinda weird? I mean, the word isn’t even in the Bible. It’s just one of those things we have to believe in to be a Christian, right?

Basically, Trinity says that the one God exists in three persons: Father, Son and Spirit; each distinct but of the same essence. The doctrine was formulated in the early centuries of the church to establish the borders of orthodox belief against the heresies of that day. Among other things, it was a way to assert both the divinity of Jesus AND Christian monotheism in the context of the pagan religion of the Roman Empire. Since we are very far removed from that context, we might wonder what value or purpose such a doctrine might have today. But we usually don’t.

For most Christians today, the Trinity is simply a litmus test for true belief. We affirm it because that’s what real Christians do. The fact that it is profoundly paradoxical and abstruse doesn’t really bother us, because it rarely comes up.

I consider myself a utilitarian trinitarian. That is, not unlike the forgers of the doctrine, I think its true value is in its function. I’m not sure it makes any sense as a standalone assertion, but its internal logic can work wonders in keeping other theological ideas in check. I offer a quick example.

Trinity vs. Good Cop/Bad Cop Theology

My favorite thing about trinitarian logic is the way it defuses and debunks any theological system that makes God into a monster and Jesus into the hero that saves us from that monster. For example, extreme formulations of Calvinism portray God as wrathful and punitive in his posture toward humans, with meek and mild Jesus negotiating a concession of forgiveness for the elect. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, this is blasphemous! If Jesus and the Father are of the same essence, that is, made out of the same stuff, it is deeply problematic to conceive of them as two figures with conflicting agendas, one offended and wrathful, the other compassionate and selfless. God is either one or the other.

Reformed and Evangelical theologies reach their conclusions by systematizing the “attributes of God” from the Old Testament, and then forcing Jesus into that mold, thus “proving” that he is divine. But that is all backwards! Jesus sought to correct and clarify his people’s ideas about what God is like. He didn’t come to endorse and confirm every notion they’d ever had about God, he came to challenge and subvert them. No one on earth has ever met the Father, but we have met the Son. Jesus is how we know what God is like. If your God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not the Christian God.

Or we might say it like this: Jesus doesn’t come to change God’s disposition toward us, he comes to reveal it. This is trinitarian.