Dabney on Unlimited Expiation

Dabney is certainly sympathetic to the Amyraldians. He doesn’t agree with Hodge’s criticisms, though he does believe that the Amyraldian solutions fail to achieve what they set out to do. For Dabney, the “limitation” of the atonement (this is a word he doesn’t much care for either) comes in the covenant of redemption and not in the content of Christ’s expiation. Dabney critiques the Amyraldians for failing to affirm that Christ purchases effectual calling for the elect, but I have to admit that I’m having trouble understanding how the purchase of effectual calling relates with the expiation, of which Dabney admits is unlimited. It seems to me that the covenant of redemption is wholly bound up in God’s secret will, and thus we ought not say too much about how it comes about. I think that Dabney comes out pretty close to “hypothetical universalism,” whatever that actually is. Perhaps Flynn will enlighten us all.

To begin with, he notes the genuine offer of the gospel to all, stating that God really does desire, in a true sense of that word, that even the reprobate would be saved, even though He has not decreed it to come about. Dabney says that limited atonement is analogous to election, but is quick to state, “redemption is limited precisely by the decree, and by nothing else” (Systematic Theology pg. 527).

Dabney gets into the more specific question of the content of Christ’s death, and his distinctions are very helpful:

Now Christ is a true substitute. His suffereings were penal and vicarious, and made a true satisfaction for all those who actually embrace them by faith. But the conception charged on us seems to be, as though Christ’s expiation were a web of the garment of righteousness, to be cut into definite pieces, and distributed out, so much to each person of the elect; whence, of course, it must have a definite aggregate length, and had God seen fit to add any to the number of elect, He must have had an additional extent of web woven. This is all incorrect. Satisfaction was Christ’s indivisible act, and inseparable vicarious merit, infinite in moral value, the whole in its unity and completeness, imputed to every believing elect man, without numerical division, subtraction or exhaustion.

Dabney also adds, “Remember, the limitation is precisely in the decree, and no where else.” He states the the real limitation is in the personal relationships decreed to come about. His conclusion is of vast importance:

The only New Testament sense the word atonement has is that of katallage, reconciliation.  But expiation is another idea.  Katallage is personal.  Exilasmos [expiation] is impersonal.  Katallage is multiplied, being repeated as often as a sinner comes to the expiatory blood: exilasmos is single, unique, complete; and, in itself considered, has no more relationship to one man’s sins than another.  As it is applied in effectual calling, it becomes personal, and receives a limitation.  But in itself, limitation is irrelevant to it.  Hence, when men use the word atonement, as they so often do, in the sense of expiation, the phrases, “limited atonement,” “particular atonement,” have no meaning. Redemption is limited, i.e., to true believers, and is particular. Expiation is not limited.

Now Dabney’s discussion is wholly concerned with penal substitution. There is no mention made of Christus Victor, which, were such written today, would be a glaring omission, but in Dabney’s day the neglect was standard and can perhaps be forgiven.

As I understand it, the “limited” only applies to the secret will of God and the covenant of redemption. Being secret, it seems a hard doctrine to preach directly to people, and I think Dabney admits as much. The entire issue is basically one of the via negativa. Given that it was a rejection of a contrary proposal, this makes good sense.

The gospel is part of God’s revealed will though, and as such I think we are free to speak of it to all. Dabney is more reserved on what this looks like, although I can’t see wherein he and I would really disagree, especially if broader atonement models are figured in. That Christ has satisfied God’s wrath and in him is peace and reconciliation ought to be the very object of our faith. That is what we are to believe. In Christ, we are reconciled to God.

This entry was posted in atonement, free offer of the gospel by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

2 thoughts on “Dabney on Unlimited Expiation

  1. I am studying calvinism and have run across what seems to be debate within calvinism about the atonement of Christ. I thought all 5 point calvinisnts agreed on limted atonement but that doesnt seem to be the case from reading some posts on your site and others. I was wondering if you knew of any books or articles online that could help me in understanding the whole debate?

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