The Final Word on the Extent of the Atonement?

In 1647, John Owen published what some consider to be his most influential work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, which defended the doctrine of limited atonement. Perhaps because of Owen’s work, many have assumed limited atonement to be the default position of most Reformed theologians (that and the well-known recent acronym TULIP). In 2013, an edited work, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, put forth the most comprehensive modern defense of the doctrine. Then in 2015, B&H published Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: 3 Views, to continue the debate.

This year, however, B&H has published what can only be called a tome–an 850 page volume by David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review. Perhaps no other book has been written that has covered the breadth of primary sources (in the realm of historical theology) as does Allen’s work. Indeed, his approach is nearly encyclopedic, and one gets the impression that Allen may have read more theologians on the extent of the atonement than any other working on the issue.


His book divides into three parts. The first surveys the opinions and arguments of theologians on the extent of the atonement from the early church to the modern era. The second, given Allen’s baptist convictions, surveys the same subject among baptist theologians, beginning with the English General and Particular Baptists. The third part is a nearly-150 page review, chapter by chapter, of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her


The first praiseworthy aspect of this work is the clarity of the introduction, which orients the reader to the many different questions that fall under the doctrine of the atonement. Allen distinguishes between the intent, extent, and application of the atonement (xix-xxviii). He also provides definitions for a multitude of terms used throughout the volume to avoid confusion. This introduction could be consulted profitably by anyone wanting to orient themselves to the debate. Importantly, he says the proper question regarding the extent of the atonement is “for whose sins did Christ die (or substitute)?” (xxiv).

The second useful aspect of Allen’s work is his extensive interaction with several influential theologians and works on the topic. You might know that there is significant debate over whether Calvin was a Calvinist (in the TULIP sense; see, e.g., K. Kennedy’s Union with Christ and the Extent of the Atonement in Calvin). Allen discusses the debate for fifty pages (48-96). When he gets to Owen, he treats The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (still considered the most convincing defense of limited atonement) in 30 pages (197-227; by the way, the pages of this book are physically large too!). Important among Baptists is Andrew Fuller, who receives 20 pages (477-497), with some interesting historical analysis of his interaction with other theologians (such as Dan Taylor) and his resulting theological shifts.

Third, Allen recognized that From Heaven He Came and Sought Her was the most comprehensive modern defense of the doctrine, and gave it 150 pages of interaction. Reading through his critiques chapter by chapter will provide the reader good interaction between theologians on opposite sides of the issue.

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Looking Forward

Allen’s work is rightly subtitled “A Historical and Critical Review.” He says in his introduction that “exegetical arguments appear throughout this volume” in the “quotations and analyses of various proponents and opponents of limited atonement.” Allen does interact with them throughout and he is aware that he is taking more of a historical perspective, but the textually-driven among us ask Dr. Allen: Will you follow up this volume with a monograph arguing exegetically and theologically for unlimited atonement? We hope you do!

For advocates of limited atonement, they will want to attend carefully to Allen’s arguments that virtually everyone until Beza held to unlimited atonement. He critiques Haykins’s chapter in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her for arguing that many Fathers held to limited atonement, and in the first part of Allen’s book he puts forth many citations to argue that the Fathers all held to unlimited atonement. Now, who will review all of these primary source citations to determined whether Allen is correct?

Lastly, is the terminological problem solved? Allen sets forth the question of the extent of the atonement as “for whose sins did Christ die (or substitute)?” But he says other theologians have asked the wrong question (xxiii). A. A. Hodge asked about the design of the Father and Son in respect to the persons for whose benefit the atonement was made. Louis Berkhof asked whether the design of the Father was to save all, or only the elect. J. Oliver Buswell talked about the sufficiency, the applicability, and the offer of the atonement. Allen says all three have the question wrong. The question of the extent (not intent or design) of the atonement is for whose sins Christ died.

Complicating the terminological question is what the biblical authors mean when they say Christ died for “all” (2 Cor 5:15), “the world” (1 John 2:2; cf. John 3:16) or “many” (Mark 10:45, alluding to Isa 53:11). So when theologians say in a published work that Christ “died for all” or “for all mankind,” are they espousing the doctrine of unlimited atonement as Allen has defined it, or are they simply echoing biblical language that advocates of limited atonement would interpret to support their position? These would be a fascinating question for Allen to explore in a follow-up monograph!

Our greatest thanks to Allen for producing this encyclopedic and useful volume for the academy and the church.

Preview or buy it here on Amazon.


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