Moving Beyond a ‘Plain’ Reading of Scripture

In theological debate, a plain and straightforward reading of Scripture is often adduced as a compelling “biblical” argument.  However, a straightforward reading of Scripture is often in danger of reading the Bible out of context, by truncating or removing texts from their original contexts.  In this way, many “biblical” arguments turn out to be exercises in theological redaction and atomistic hermeneutics.

This is the point that Lee Gattis makes in his recent book on the extent of the atonement.  He writes,

Those who hold to limited atonement atonement therefore believe that it makes more sense of the Bible’s witness as a whole.  They would suggest that the supposedly ‘straightforward’ yet atomistic reading of the universal texts creates more problems biblically than it solves.  If we are to reject the doctrine of definite atonement simply because 1 John 2:2 says Jesus was the propitiation ‘not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world,’ then must we not also reject the Protestant doctrine of justification simply because James 2:24 says ‘a person is justified by works and not by faith alone? ( For Us and For Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry [London: The Latimer Trust, 2012], 21).

While many who advocate universal atonement do so on “biblical” grounds, we need to ask the question: Are the proof texts that are employed being read in context or are they being collected and synthesized for their use of the universal terms “all” or “world.”  If the strength of the argument is found in the mere appeal to the singular word, it is likely that you have an atomistic reading that does not due justice to the meaning of Paul, John, or Jesus.

In the case that Gattis highlights, James 2:24, no good Protestant would be happy with a mere reading of that text.  To understand what James is saying, one must wrestle with the whole pericope and then relate it to Paul’s doctrine of justification.

In the same way, wwe must do the hard work of comparing, contrasting, and seeking to comprehend the larger biblical theology of the particular and universal texts found in Scripture.  Only when we examine these texts at their textual, epochal, and canonical horizons, will we begin to appreciate and understand the beautiful harmony that exists in Scripture between God’s particular atoning sacrifice that is intended to save people from every tongue, tribe, language, and nation (Rev 5:9-10).

As David Platt said not long ago– the vision of the cross that fuels risky misisons is one that is “graciously and globally particular.”  May we aspire to move beyond a plain reading of Scripture which fancies thin readings of Scripture, and may we endeavor to understand the full meaning of texts like John 3:16 and Romans 8:32-34, so that our thick readings of Scripture would secure our love for the gospel and its proclamation to the ends of the earth.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

2 thoughts on “Moving Beyond a ‘Plain’ Reading of Scripture

  1. I agree with everything you said.
    But there is another question we need to ask.
    Are there any texts that clearly teach Limited Atonement?

  2. Tim, I think there are but the whole point that Gattis is making, and that Robert Smith Candlish makes (whose quotes I just posted under Atonement / Extent of the Atonement) is to say that it takes more than isolated texts to prove general or particular atonement.

    Too often the debate moves to a concordance-style collections of texts, which I think is fundamentally flawed. In arguing that way, we often miss the unified office of Christ and the unified text of the Bible which often speaks universally and particularly in the very same context (Matthew 11:25-30; John 6:35ff).

    There are individual passages which speak about Christ dying for his sheep (John 10:14, 26), his bride (Eph 5:25ff), his church (Acts 20:28), and the elect (Rom 8:32-34) but still those texts need larger biblical-theological categories to explain them.

    I hope that helps.


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