In a video entitled "John MacArthur: Calvinism vs. Arminianism", Todd Friel of Wretched gives a short introduction before showing a clip of John MacArthur at some event several years ago, allegedly attempting to bring a little harmony to the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Long story short, MacArthur asks the crowd some leading questions in an attempt to convince them that deep Biblical truths are often paradoxical and above human reasoning. He provides the following examples:
- Individual election to salvation contrasted with the universal gospel offer to all mankind
- Scriptures written fully by man but also fully by God
- Guarantee of eternal security contrasted with the responsibility of every believer to persevere
MacArthur states that "in every major doctrine of the Bible you have an apparent paradox that you cannot resolve." I assume that most mainstream Calvinists would agree with MacArthur on this issue. Extreme Calvinists, not content with mystery or paradox, unashamedly push Calvinist theology to the limits of its logical implications (double-predestination, God the author of sin, no sincere gospel offer to the reprobate, etc.) This is radically unorthodox doctrinal territory where most mainstream Calvinists don't dare to tread. So, I believe I have established the fact that appealing to paradox or mystery when asked to explain the inexplicable is not foreign to the Calvinist tradition.
However, when it comes to advancing their doctrine of limited atonement, Calvinists apparently have no tolerance for paradox or mystery. Because there is not a single verse in the Bible that plainly and clearly states that Jesus died only for the elect, the Calvinist typically frames his defense of limited atonement based on a logical argument, John Owen's 'double-jeopardy' argument arguably being the most popular. Owen argued that only one of the following can be true:
Christ made atonement for:
a) Some of the sins of all men
b) All of the sins of all men
c) All of the sins of some men
Since nobody believes a) and b) implies universalism, c) is the only logical conclusion. If one argues that Christ died for all the sins of all men, but not all are saved due to unbelief, then Owen would counter with the fact that their unbelief was itself a sin that would have been atoned for, so God would have no grounds to damn the unbeliever to Hell. Calvinists claim that limited atonement is the only logical and rational view of the atonement, lest God be considered unjust for punishing the same sins twice, once on Christ and a second time on the unbeliever.
Based on their understanding of certain Biblical passages, Calvinists typically advocate for the 'penal substitution' or 'vicarious substitutionary atonement' view of Christ's cross-work. Within this theological structure, it would be irrational and paradoxical to conclude that, on one hand, Christ made atonement for the sins of all men, but on the other hand, only those who believe (a minority of men) will be saved. However, the Bible contains an abundance of verses which, taken at face value, strongly seem to suggest that Christ did in fact make a sin-offering for the sins of all mankind. At this point, the Calvinist has two options:
1) Accept the paradox and believe both 'penal substition' and 'universal atonement'.
2) Deny the paradox and invent creative ways to interpret the 'universal atonement' verses according to their theology.
While 4-point Calvinists accept option 1), 5-point Calvinists unanimously accept option 2). Why are Calvinists willing to accept paradox or mystery when explaining the origin of evil, predestination contrasted with genuine human responsibility, etc. but on the subject of atonement, they adopt an excluively rationalist view of Biblical interpretation? Given the plethora of Bible verses clearly stating that Christ's sacrifice was for 'all men', 'every man', 'whole world', why have Calvinist's rejected a paradoxical understanding of the atonement in favour of a purely rationalistic understanding even when they are perfectly willing to appeal to paradox or mystery concerning other major Biblical doctrines?
How do Calvinists answer these charges of inconsistency?