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Theology, philosophy & apologetics from Reformed marketing expert Dominic Bnonn Tennant


On the atonement, part 4: God’s desires frustrated?

By D Bnonn Tennant

Part 4 of 6, in which I interact with the objection that universal atonement requires that God be at cross-purposes with himself, entertaining frustrated desires which he cannot fulfill.

⇐ Continued from ‘On the atonement, part 3: the objective grounds for faith’

This objection is, in my view, the least compelling of those I’m going to consider. Generally speaking, it focuses on the sincere offer of the gospel—which universal atonement typically upholds—and tries to show that it forces inconsistency or irrationality on God. That is, if salvation is sincerely offered to everyone, then it follows that God must in fact desire the salvation of everyone. If he didn’t so desire, then he would be insincere to so offer.1 Therefore, universal atonement is said to make God conflicted and irrational—since, as John Owen puts it,

They affirm that God is said properly to expect and desire divers things which yet never come to pass. ‘We grant,’ saith Corvinus, ‘that there are desires in God that never are fulfilled,’ Now, surely, to desire what one is sure will never come to pass is not an act regulated by wisdom or counsel; and, therefore, they must grant that before he did not know but perhaps so it might be. ‘God wisheth and desireth some good things, which yet come not to pass,’ say they, in their Confession; whence one of these two things must need follow, —either, first, that there is a great deal of imperfection in his nature, to desire and expect what he knows shall never come to pass; or else he did not know but it might, which overthrows his prescience.2

Subsequently, consistent particularists deny that God can offer the reprobate salvation sincerely, since to offer something sincerely means that you desire the person take it. Since God knows that the reprobate will not take it, he would be irrational to offer it to them. In fact, since he has decreed that they not take it, it seems plain that he desires the opposite. Vincent Cheung states the matter with his customary force:

The doctrine in question has been called “the free offer,” “the well-meant offer,” and “the sincere offer” of the gospel [...] My position is that it makes God into a schizophrenic fool. It is unbiblical and irrational, and thus must be rejected and opposed [...] we must not present the gospel as a sincere offer to all, as if God’s “desire” can differ from his decree, as if God could or would decree against his “desire” (when Scripture teaches that he decrees what he desires—that is, his “good pleasure”—and what he desires, he decrees and makes certain), and as if it is possible for even the non-elect to be saved [...]3

There are three main faults with this objection:

I. Universal atonement doesn’t necessitate the sincere offer

It must be noted that the arguments I’ve given for a universal scope to the atonement don’t, in and of themselves, necessitate the view that God offers the gospel to the reprobate. As far as I can see, the sincere offer is really a separate issue from the scope of the atonement. My argument that the universal gospel call is undermined if the atonement is not universal does not require that the call be couched as an offer. That’s why I used the term “call”—because it doesn’t favor either view. The gospel is certainly a call, regardless of whether it’s a command only, or an offer as well.

Having said that, though, I think most proponents of universal atonement do believe that the gospel is more than just a command: they do believe that God offers salvation sincerely to the reprobate. Certainly I do. Therefore, it behooves me defuse the particularist objection in other ways.

II. If it succeeds, it refutes particularism as well

It seems very obvious to me that the particularist is either severely myopic in making this objection, or he’s engaging in some monumental special pleading. To show what I mean, let me lay out Owen’s argument that “to desire what one is sure will never come to pass is not an act regulated by wisdom or counsel”:

  1. If one acts to desire a thing (A), knowing that thing will not come to pass (P), then one does not act in a way regulated by wisdom (W).
  2. If God acts, then he does act in a way regulated by wisdom.
  3. Therefore, if God acts to desire a thing, then he does not act to desire a thing which he knows will not come to pass [by modus tollens].
  4. If the gospel is offered sincerely to everyone (S), this implies that God desires the salvation of everyone (E).
  5. But the salvation of everyone will not come to pass.
  6. Therefore, if the gospel is offered sincerely to everyone, God desires a thing which he knows will not come to pass [by hypothetical syllogism].
  7. But we know that God does not desire anything which will not come to pass [from iii].
  8. Therefore, the gospel is not offered sincerely to everyone [by modus tollens].4

But taking the gospel call on the particularist’s own terms, wherein it is only a command, the same argument appears to lead to absurd results. Does God not desire or expect his commands to be obeyed? Surely it isn’t even in question that in some sense he desires what he commands, even if only in the sense that his commands are “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12), since they are reflections of his own character. And because they are reflections of his own character, because “just and upright is he”, he has “pleasure in uprightness” (1 Chronicles 29:17) and indeed “loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7). Do I even need to mention that to love something is, by definition, to desire it in some sense?

Given this, in the argument above, if we replace “offered” with “commanded” in regards to the gospel, we are led to the same result. If God really does desire his commands to be obeyed (in whatever sense) when he knows that they will not be obeyed, then he must not be acting in a way “regulated by wisdom”. The particularist therefore is left defending the absurd notion that God in no sense desires what he nonetheless commands, lest he somehow be irrational.

Similarly and conversely, it’s also plain that if you hate something, then in some sense you don’t desire it. Yet, God is “not a God who delights in wickedness” but one who “hates all evildoers” (Psalm 5:4–5). Given the argument above, surely it is equally true that to not desire what one is sure will come to pass demonstrates just as much of a failure of God’s wisdom and counsel? Under any Calvinistic view, God decrees everything which comes to pass. So, in making this argument, the particularist is caught on the horns of a dilemma.

III. The mistake of assuming that God has only a single intention in the atonement

Given the particularist’s argument, either God cannot desire what he decrees, or he cannot desire what he commands. In fact, Vincent Cheung seems to plainly affirm this, saying that we must not pretend “as if God’s ‘desire’ can differ from his decree, as if God could or would decree against his ‘desire’”, because “Scripture teaches that he decrees what he desires” “and what he desires, he decrees”. Vincent seems to be drawing an exclusive relationship between God’s decrees and his desires, so that if—and only if—God has decreed something, then he desires it. This necessarily means, as I’m sure someone with as sharp a mind as Vincent’s will have recognized, that if God has not decreed something, he does not desire it. As I argued to Ron Di Giacomo, who takes a very similar view,5 while it’s certainly true that God decrees something if and only if he desires it, it can’t be commensurately true that he desires something if and only if he decrees it. In fact, it is this view which makes God insane, since under it he in no sense desires that his commands always be followed—in which case they become unintelligible as moral imperatives.

For example, if there is no sense in which God desires all people to repent, then why does he command it? It goes without saying that since he has commanded it, all people ought to do it. But what does it mean for God to absolutely not desire what ought to happen; and instead absolutely desire what ought not to happen? Surely this is a genuine self-contradiction, as opposed to the merely superficial appearance of contradiction entailed by universal atonement, where God has multiple desires regarding the same situation. Ultimately, if the particularist’s objection does succeed here, he commits himself to believing that, in some situations, God desires what is evil while in no sense desiring the opposite.

This is an absurd view of God—one where he appears to unequivocally desire that which is completely contrary to his character, while not desiring in any sense its antithesis, even though it conforms to his character. The only way to make sense of such a view is to assert that God has no desires or attitudes or intentions toward anything whatsoever, except those desires and attitudes and intentions he has toward his ultimate purpose. But what possible justification can there be for such an extreme notion? Can I not simply deny this as plainly absurd given all the times where God evidences genuine desires which are situation specific? As I wrote recently about Jesus’ lament in Matthew 23:37, “it must be acknowledged, and not downplayed, that Jesus is evidencing a sincere and heartfelt lament. As Matthew Henry puts it, ‘the repetition is emphatical, and bespeaks abundance of commiseration’. So we can’t accept [...] that Jesus didn’t really want to gather Israel, despite saying that he did. That would be a plain falsehood, and God cannot lie. It must be the case that our Lord genuinely did want what he said he wanted.”6 This passage alone refutes the particularist view.

As regards the atonement specifically, I argue with Bruce Ware that

God’s intentions in the death of Christ are complex not simple, multiple not single: 1) Christ died for the purpose of securing the sure and certain salvation of his own, his elect. 2) Christ died for the purpose of paying the penalty for the sin of all people making it possible for all who believe to be saved. 3) Christ died for the purpose of securing the bone fide offer of salvation to all people everywhere. 4) Christ died for the purpose of providing an additional basis for condemnation for those who hear and reject the gospel that has been genuinely offered to them. 5) Christ died for the purpose of reconciling all things to the Father.7

Put simply, I deny the premise that it’s somehow irrational for God to desire a thing which he knows won’t occur. In fact, it seems entirely congruent that he entertain a genuine affection toward the reprobate, despite that it will never see fruition—more, it appears to be a logical necessity. In creation, he brings about the circumstances which he most desires—namely a world of sinners who will not all be saved, so that he may be most glorified—and in doing so he necessarily instantiates circumstances wherein he contingently desires the salvation of those already chosen to be lost. Do not the mere facts of (a) his perfect moral character, and (b) the existence of these lost sinners necessitate that he in some sense desires the very thing he has decreed from eternity will not occur? The desire is predicated upon the circumstances which deny its fulfillment (his plan in creation; the ultimate purpose of his will)—yet it is still real. But by merit of the fact that it’s entirely established upon the basis of his greater intention to glorify his name through the reprobation of the sinners towards whom he feels it, it is neither fulfilled nor frustrated. For it to be frustrated, it would have to be in opposition to his greater desire to glorify his name—but certainly he consented to entertain this lesser desire, and to not fulfill it, when he established his plan in creation from eternity. Given this internal consent, I can’t see any way in which he may rightly be called frustrated.

Particularists (if they are consistent) believe that God’s moral nature does not entail any attitude of benevolence toward even the most wretched of damned sinners. But that is not how Calvinists have traditionally understood God’s character. That does not describe a God who is love (1 John 4:8), but merely a God who has love. It does not describe a God who is so perfect that he loves even his enemies, but a God who does no more than the tax collectors by loving his friends (Matthew 5:43ff). So it seems to me that particularists are setting up God as having to be a certain way in order to conform to some platonic ideal of their own making, and then pushing and pulling on Scripture to make it fit. And not to sound uncharitable, but that is a kind of idolatry.

Continued in ‘On the atonement, part 5: universal salvation, or double payment’ ⇒
  1. Note that this seems to me a sound argument which does reflect what proponents of universal atonement believe. It may be contrasted with an argument sometimes forwarded, but which is unsound, that if Christ died for everyone, then God must desire the salvation of everyone. Given my discussion of federal headship and forensic imputation in part 1 of this series, it should go without saying that this conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow (even if it is true for other reasons). God may have no desire whatsoever for the salvation of the reprobate, yet the nature of federal headship would still make it true that Christ died for everyone.
  2. The Works of John Owen, volume 10 (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967); p 25.
  3. Vincent Cheung, ‘The “Sincere Offer” of the Gospel, Part 1′ (http://www.vincentcheung.com/2005/04/05/the-sincere-offer-of-the-gospel-part-1/).
  4. For A:
    1. ¬P → ¬W
    2. W
    3. P [mt]
    4. S → E
    5. E → ¬P
    6. S → ¬P [hs]
    7. P [iii]
    8. ¬S [mt]
  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant, ‘Does God desire the salvation of all?’ (http://bnonn.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/does-god-desire-the-salvation-of-all/).
  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant, ‘Understanding God’s desires’ (http://bnonn.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2008/understanding-gods-desires/).
  7. Bruce A Ware, ‘Extent of the Atonement: Outline of The Issue, Positions, Key Texts, and Key Theological Arguments’ (http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/docs/ware_atonement.pdf [PDF; 25 kB]).

4 comments

  1. David

    Hey there,

    Excellent post. Do you have any thoughts on the claims by James White on some of this. He proposed two basic propositions.

    1) We must “ascribe” to God a desire for compliance to what he commands.

    2) However, we cannot push this desire back into the heart of God.

    I am not sure what to make of that at all. When White says we must “ascribe” to God such a desire, this sounds awfully like a form of Nominalism-Conceptualism (of Occamist echoes). And then when he says we cannot push such desires into the heart of God, I wonder, therefore, from where else could such a desire be sourced? If the source is not from the heart of God, then where in God’s personhood, could it come from?

    Any thoughts?

    Thanks,
    David

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey David. I must admit I haven’t really been keeping up with the White/J316 controversy, so I wasn’t aware that he’d said this. Do you have a context in which I can see it in his own words? I find it as confusing as you do. There are two possible interpretations as I see it.

    I. Perhaps he has merely chosen his words very poorly, and he means to say (as I do in this article) that God has contingent desires which don’t reflect his ultimate purpose. Of course, these desires still exist in his heart. But perhaps by “heart” White is referring to God’s overarching plan or purpose; his most superlative aim or desire. Still, that seems a very awkward understanding, if a charitable one.

    II. I would tend to assume that a scholar like White would automatically use the word “heart” in the standard biblical way, to refer to the mind, or more specifically to the seat of emotions, desires, attitudes, etc. In the New Testament, as you know, it’s typically translated from the word kardia, which Crosswalk’s New Testament Greek Lexicon (based on Thayer and Smith) defines as:

    1. the soul or mind, as it is the fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavours
    2. of the understanding, the faculty and seat of the intelligence
    3. of the will and character
    4. of the soul so far as it is affected and stirred in a bad way or good, or of the soul as the seat of the sensibilities, affections, emotions, desires, appetites, passions
    5. of the middle or central or inmost part of anything, even though inanimate (Crosswalk, kardia (http://bible.crosswalk.com/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=2588&version=nas), emphasis mine.)

    Compare the Hebrew lebab which refers to “the inner man, mind, will, heart, soul, understanding” (Crosswalk, lebab, #1), “inclination, resolution, determination (of will)” (ibid, #5); or kilyah meaning literally the kidneys, but referring figuratively to the seat of emotion and affection (cf kilyah, #1b). This is further corroborated by the fact that both nephesh and ruwach, which refer to the spiritual core of man, are occasionally translated “heart” in most Bibles (I’m looking specifically at Crosswalk’s NASB translation count). Similarly, of psuche—the spirit of man—it says, “the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions (our heart, soul etc.)” (psuche, #3a, emphasis mine).

    If this is how he’s using the term, then we can replace “heart” with “mind” in his premises, and deduce:

    1. We must “ascribe” to God a desire for compliance to what he commands.
    2. However, we cannot push this desire back into the mind of God.
    3. Therefore, the desire we ascribe to God does not come from God’s mind.
    4. But desires are attitudes of the mind, originating and existing in the mind.
    5. Therefore, either we cannot ascribe to God a desire for compliance to what he commands, or we must push this desire back into the mind of God.

    So obviously either (1) or (2) must be false. I’d say plainly it’s (2). Again, I’d like to see White’s comments in his own words, but as they stand here they’re just obviously absurd. If we ascribe something to God, it means that we believe it actually reflects something about him. If we ascribe a desire to him, it must actually reflect some real attitude of his mind. Otherwise we’re just making stuff up about him, which ultimately is to bear false witness about him, and indulge in a little idolatry on the side.

    I can see why White would say something like this. He appears to be highly confused on the issue of God’s desires. On the one hand, he obviously wants to maintain that God’s commands are genuine and sincere, which necessitates that God in some way desire us to follow them. On the other, he wants to maintain that none of God’s desires could ever contradict or conflict with each other—which of course is equally admirable. But he doesn’t seem to recognize that God can have desires for contradictory things without having contradictory desires. The law of non-contradiction requires the same relationship as well as the same time for a contradiction to obtain. And his poorly-formulated view of the atonement forces him into a logically inconsistent position regarding God’s desires toward the reprobate, which in turn forces him to say facile things like that God has some kind of superficial desire for them to obey the command to repent, but not a desire which can be “pushed back” into his heart. Not a real desire, in other words. Just an expressed desire. Well, surely he recognizes that for God to express a desire which doesn’t reflect something real in himself is merely for God to lie.

    I think what’s most surprising is that when Eric Svendsen wrote his article on unlimited atonement, and White dialogged with him on it, neither of them appeared to be aware that it wasn’t some brand new invention which needed to be hammered out. Both openly stated they’d never seen it before, and White was so unfamiliar with it that he said he wasn’t confident to launch a detailed refutation, since he didn’t know its details. But surely both White and Svendsen, who are scholars of the New Testament, have read the Reformers and the later theologians who held to this view? Are Calvinists these days so blinded by their own system that they can’t read earlier theologians without imputing the Owenic view of particular atonement to them?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. David

    hey Dominic, I went through and pulled the links. I hope I didnt miss any. Some of the comments are made in the utoob monologues. You should also listen to the one where Turretinfan was present too, where White interviewed himself, with Turretinfan’s help. ;-) [Its the first one I believe.]

    The first link at the bottom is the earliest, the last one at the top was the last: unless I missed any after that.

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3021

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3018

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3012

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3009

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3006

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3001

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=3000

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=2994

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=2993

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=2990

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=2988

    http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php?itemid=2955

    David

  4. David

    Hey Dominic,

    Your extended reply scares me to death. :-)

    Dom: Hey David. I must admit I haven’t really been keeping up with the White/J316 controversy, so I wasn’t aware that he’d said this. Do you have a context in which I can see it in his own words? I find it as confusing as you do. There are two possible interpretations as I see it.

    David: I posted some links but your spam filter may have grabbed it. I sent them via email anyway.

    Dom: I. Perhaps he has merely chosen his words very poorly, and he means to say (as I do in this article) that God has contingent desires which don’t reflect his ultimate purpose. Of course, these desires still exist in his heart. But perhaps by “heart” White is referring to God’s overarching plan or purpose; his most superlative aim or desire. Still, that seems a very awkward understanding, if a charitable one.

    David: No that’s not the impression I got. God can have no unfulfilled desires. Nada, zip, zilch.

    Dom: II. I would tend to assume that a scholar like White would automatically use the word “heart” in the standard biblical way, to refer to the mind, or more specifically to the seat of emotions, desires, attitudes, etc. In the New Testament, as you know, it’s typically translated from the word kardia, which Crosswalk’s New Testament Greek Lexicon (based on Thayer and Smith) defines as:

    1. the soul or mind, as it is the fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavours
    2. of the understanding, the faculty and seat of the intelligence
    3. of the will and character
    4. of the soul so far as it is affected and stirred in a bad way or good, or of the soul as the seat of the sensibilities, affections, emotions, desires, appetites, passions
    5. of the middle or central or inmost part of anything, even though inanimate (Crosswalk, kardia (http://bible.crosswalk.com/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=2588&version=nas), emphasis mine.)

    David: Exactly. I had the same thought. I dont think one could separate the heart of God from the Will and God and posit that these desires for compliance are sourced in the will (ie volition) of God but not his heart. To say they are sourced only in the “command” begs the question, as in where is the source for that? Or something like that. That is why I really do think he meant only that we, ‘ascribe’ desire. But that sounded way to nominalistic for me. It results in a predication about God which has no correspondence within God in any sense, but is just a phenomena which we name (ie nominalism).

    But I am not sure. As it stands we have two irreconcilable statements:

    1) God desires compliance to his commands.

    2) God has no unfulfilled desires.

    What I did not see is any attempt to reconcile the contradiction, other than the recourse that we ‘ascribe’ to God such desire, such that we must not, push this desire back into the heart of God. We were never told where we were to actually push it into: ie, its source. Are we to push it Godward, if so, where? are we to push it manward, if so, what does that entail but irrationalism nominalism?

    Dom: [edit lexical material] If this is how he’s using the term, then we can replace “heart” with “mind” in his premises, and deduce:

    1. We must “ascribe” to God a desire for compliance to what he commands.
    2. However, we cannot push this desire back into the mind of God.
    3. Therefore, the desire we ascribe to God does not come from God’s mind.
    4. But desires are attitudes of the mind, originating and existing in the mind.
    5. Therefore, either we cannot ascribe to God a desire for compliance to what he commands, or we must push this desire back into the mind of God.

    So obviously either (1) or (2) must be false. I’d say plainly it’s (2). Again, I’d like to see White’s comments in his own words, but as they stand here they’re just obviously absurd. If we ascribe something to God, it means that we believe it actually reflects something about him. If we ascribe a desire to him, it must actually reflect some real attitude of his mind. Otherwise we’re just making stuff up about him, which ultimately is to bear false witness about him, and indulge in a little idolatry on the side.

    David: Sure, you mirror my exact thoughts. Truly, I was left with the impression that the point was we, we humans, merely “ascribe” these things to God. I guess it would be like saying we do it to make some phenomena intelligible to us, but we are not to suppose said phenomena actually points back to something in God.

    Dom: I can see why White would say something like this. He appears to be highly confused on the issue of God’s desires. On the one hand, he obviously wants to maintain that God’s commands are genuine and sincere, which necessitates that God in some way desire us to follow them. On the other, he wants to maintain that none of God’s desires could ever contradict or conflict with each other—which of course is equally admirable. But he doesn’t seem to recognize that God can have desires for contradictory things without having contradictory desires. The law of non-contradiction requires the same relationship as well as the same time for a contradiction to obtain. And his poorly-formulated view of the atonement forces him into a logically inconsistent position regarding God’s desires toward the reprobate, which in turn forces him to say facile things like that God has some kind of superficial desire for them to obey the command to repent, but not a desire which can be “pushed back” into his heart. Not a real desire, in other words. Just an expressed desire. Well, surely he recognizes that for God to express a desire which doesn’t reflect something real in himself is merely for God to lie.

    David: Sure. Trust me, the words “ascribe” and “pushed back” are direct quotations. Could one even seriously propose that God verbalizes that he desires compliance to a given commands (or all commands) and yet at the same hold think that in no sense does God actually desire said compliance?

    Dom: I think what’s most surprising is that when Eric Svendsen wrote his article on unlimited atonement, and White dialogued with him on it, neither of them appeared to be aware that it wasn’t some brand new invention which needed to be hammered out. Both openly stated they’d never seen it before, and White was so unfamiliar with it that he said he wasn’t confident to launch a detailed refutation, since he didn’t know its details. But surely both White and Svendsen, who are scholars of the New Testament, have read the Reformers and the later theologians who held to this view? Are Calvinists these days so blinded by their own system that they can’t read earlier theologians without imputing the Owenic view of particular atonement to them?

    David: Never assume anything. That is my rule. As for the historic doctrines of God’s desire that all men be saved by will revealed, Ive met many many hypercalvinists who cant believe that Calvin down to Turretin taught this. And if you read the Q&A White had with Jason, White really does seem to be under the impression that his view is the majority opinion.

    If you get time to wade through the reading and utoob stuff, I would be interested in your thoughts.

    Thanks,
    David

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