Shedd on the atonement, part 4

The final third of Shedd’s account of the atonement in Dogmatic Theology focuses on three related questions. First, the possibility and justice of substitution. Shedd presents a number of points to support the principle. He suggests that there is a difference between the substance of a human and the agency of a human, so that the primary focus of justice is not on the human nature as such but on the sinful agency of the sinner. This allows for substitution. A final point in this discussion is a resort to God’s sovereign administration of justice. The idea of a Calvinistic ‘relaxation’ of justice that allows for a substitute, to be distinguished from Scotus’s and Grotius’s relaxation of the extent of the penalty, is also mentioned. Shedd admits that Christ’s suffering was different in nature or quality from that of ‘a lost man.’ (Shedd 2003: 734) But there remained an equivalence. The value of Christ’s death and sufferings equals the sufferings of a lost world of sinners. Perhaps at this point, Shedd’s abstraction of the idea of justice from the one who is the judge is most apparent. D.A. Carson’s critique of illustrations that compare divine justice with human systems of justice is applicable here. (Hill & JamesIII: 132) Although Shedd is aware of differences between the divine and the human working of justice, his writing often assumes justice as an abstract concept. Justice is personified apart from the person of God.

Second, the vexed question of the extent of the atonement is addressed. Shedd describes two uses of the word ‘extent’. There is a passive use of the word, which is equivalent to the word ‘value’. The intrinsic and real value of Christ’s atonement ‘for the purposes of judicial satisfaction’, that is, the ‘extent’ of the atonement is, in this use of the word, unlimited. Here Shedd also uses the word that is commonly associated with Reformed orthodox discussions of the atonement. It is ‘sufficient’ in value to cover the sins of all humans. But, according to Shedd, the word ‘extent’ also has an active usage, that ‘denotes the act of extending.’ The meaning of the extent of the atonement in this sense becomes a discussion of how the Holy Spirit applies the atonement to individuals. In the words of Shedd, the extent is now the intent. Shedd refers to Shakespeare, Spenser, Browne and Massinger to argue that this active use is the earlier meaning of the word in English literature. The Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism use the word in this sense in their discussions of God’s eternal decree. However, for Shedd, the passive use of the word was the common popular meaning, so that: ‘If the word means value, then the atonement is unlimited; if it means applying, then the atonement is limited.’ (Shedd 2003: 740,741)

In the same way, Shedd distinguished different meanings in the assertion that Christ died for all. This language is appropriate if it means that Christ died the kind of death equivalent to the sins of all people, in that act providing a sufficient and credible basis on which God could offer atonement to individuals. Shedd distinguished between atonement and redemption too. Atonement is in some sense an objective work that stands regardless of God’s purpose for individuals. Shedd included an extended extract from John Owen’s Against Universal Redemption, which states that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for all but that it formally became the ransom price for individuals according to the purposes of God.

Atonement is unlimited but redemption is limited. Shedd recognized that his doctrine of atonement was related both to the doctrine of election, and his understanding of anthropology. There was no separation, or confusion, in the divine decree between these things. Shedd gave five reasons for relating the atonement to God’s purpose in applying it to elect individuals. These included the need for the risen Christ to be an object of faith, and the relation between Christ’s atoning work and his work of intercession (John 17:9).

Finally, Shedd affirms the universal offer of the atonement that is made to all in the gospel. In answer to the apparent anomaly of a universal offer over against a limited application of the atonement, Shedd lists nine arguments in favor of offering the gospel to all people. These arguments include a restatement of the sufficiency of the atonement to cover all sins, and the assertion that God placed no obstacles to the application of the atonement in the case of the non-elect. Human will is the chief obstacle that hinders people from receiving the benefits of the atonement: ‘the real reason of the inefficacy of Christ’s blood is impenitence and unbelief.’ (Shedd 2003: 752) In common with the Reformed orthodox tradition, Shedd also pointed to blessings and benefits that the non-elect receive from the atonement apart from the forgiveness of sins.

Shedd’s account of the doctrine of atonement is typical of the Reformed orthodox tradition of an objective atonement that requires subjective appropriation before particular individuals can be declared to be actually redeemed. In so far as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ relate to this work of atonement there is no substantial difference between the Reformed orthodox view of atonement, and other objective theories of atonement, including those of Barth and Torrance. The differences are seen in theological method, and in the relation of the atonement to other doctrines, especially the doctrines of election, humanity, and the nature of God.

In this regard there are reasons for retaining some interest in Shedd’s theology. This paper has been a survey of Shedd’s discussion of the atonement in his Dogmatic Theology. An intriguing aspect of that work is Shedd’s defence of traducianism in the context of his christology, and, by implication, in relation to his doctrine of atonement. Shedd describes human nature as a substance which can be either individualized or not. As such the whole of human nature was somehow contained within Adam and Eve, including the non-individualized human nature of Christ. Given this, the incarnation of Christ involves taking from the human nature of Mary that part which was destined to be Christ’s. But that human nature was sinful before the incarnation. The work of the Holy Spirit was a sanctifying work, but Shedd suggests that it had to be a justifying work too. Jesus Christ had to be justified and sanctified because his human nature had been part of fallen humanity. (Shedd 2003: 475)

The implication of this cannot be avoided. While the God-man, Jesus Christ, was sinless, Shedd’s mention of the justification of Jesus in his incarnation suggests that the atoning work of Christ was applied to his own human nature. Christ died for his own human nature, as well as for the sins of the world. The obvious differences in methodology, sophistication, and cultural context between Shedd and theologians like Barth and Torrance should not hide from us the similarities, perhaps unintended, between his christology and anthropology and their development of these topics. One example might be Torrance’s discussion of the sinful human nature of Christ, alluded to in his discussion of the incarnation in The Trinitarian Faith.

A modified Reformed orthodox doctrine of the atonement could easily use aspects from these three theologians. It could retain a non-universal understanding of redemption, while identifying Christ fully with humanity and with the new creation. Another way to resolve the question of universalism is to consider the atonement in eschatological perspective. As far as I know Shedd never remotely considered this possibility, but hints of such a view can be found in a sermon of Benjamin B. Warfield on John 3:16. Akin to Pannenberg’s view of history and meaning, in this view all things need to be explained from the perspective of the future kingdom of God. In the new creation the atonement, and redemption, will be seen to be universal.

In conclusion, although Shedd’s work, like so much Reformed orthodox dogmatic writing, is piecemeal, his best insights still provide useful material for constructing fuller accounts of Christ‘s saving work. He illustrates the strengths and the weaknesses of the Reformed orthodox position in its recent forms.

Hill, C.E., & F.K. James III, (eds) 2004
The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological and Practical Perspectives. Essays in honor of Roger R. Nicole. Downers Grove, Ill.:InterVarsity Press

DogmaticTheology.edA.W.Gomes. Phillipsburg,NJ:P&RPublishing



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