The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (B&H Academic, 2016).
by David L. Allen
Genre: Biblical Reference / Christian Theology
Size: 820 pages (and weighs in at 1.7 kg!)
What’s the big idea: David Allen makes a comprehensive biblical, historical, theological case that the majority of Christians, even within those who are considered Reformed, affirm an “unlimited atonement” as the best understanding of the extent of Christ’s saving work.
Easy to read? It was OK. It’s certainly an extensive tome on the atonement’s extent, so I’ve read through about a third of it so far. The sheer size of the book will probably appeal to those interested in the topic, rather than general readers. That being said, B&H editors have helpfully indexed the book by subject, author and Scripture passage. If you know how to search through this book, it becomes easy to read and a goldmine of information.
What I appreciated:
- It’s comprehensive. From Irenaeus to Al Mohler, Allen surveys what every well-known (and more unfamiliar) Christian leader has believed regarding the extent of the atonement. You’ll need to discern between the historical data and Allen’s own commentary and assessment interspersed throughout. But a lot of research has gone into this book, which we can be grateful for.
- I appreciated the tone of Allen’s work. He doesn’t play the man but seeks only to critique the positions that they hold. This kind of writing style is often lacking in the intramural debates on this topic.
- He provides two helpful charts (p.xxviii, 766) – one is a summary of four different views of the extent of the atonement. Another is a comprehensive list of theologians and their view on this matter.
- Part 3 of the book comprises a chapter-by-chapter critique of Jonathan and David Gibson’s From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, the most comprehensive defence of definite atonement to date. Even for someone who’s persuaded by the arguments for definite atonement, I found it helpful to understand the objections from Allen’s side of the fence. He summarises each contributor’s arguments fairly, and offers thoughtful and persuasive rebuttals.
What I would have liked to see:
- For an 800-plus “tour de force”, there was surprisingly little discussion on OT conceptions of the atonement. For example, the Day of Atonement is only referenced twice (p402 in a discussion of Robert Lightner, and when Allen critiques the article on definite atonement in the OT in From Heaven He Came And Sought Her).
- A bit less of an inquisitionary tone. I understand that this is meant to be a comprehensive historical survey, but Allen seems to take aim at any and every author who’s ever published about the atonement’s extent. In some cases, he pulls apart their arguments in the kind of lengthy, meticulous manner one normally associates with blog posts you disagree with (e.g., poor Paul Jarvis in p.610-12). At times, it seemed like a meeting or phone conversation would have sufficed in place of the extended critique.
- Some more trimming. I appreciate how extensive the data is out there, but there’s no reason why some of the historical surveys couldn’t have been abbreviated.
- Allen sometimes adopts unclear labels to describe his and other viewpoints. He insists that no Baptists can be “Reformed” in the confessional sense (p.xv), and goes so far as to call his own view not Arminian, or Moderate Calvinist – but simply, a “Baptist” perspective (p.xviii).
Who I’d recommend it to: Anyone who is interested in the debates about the extent of the atonement. Carl Trueman (an advocate of definite atonement) offers a warm endorsement: “While David Allen and I disagree on the matter, this work is an irenic and learned contribution to the topic which carries the historical, and thus doctrinal, discussion forward in an extremely helpful way. I am thus happy to recommend this work of a friendly critic. It deserves wide readership and careful engagement.”
Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted, this extensive tome about the atonement’s extent serves as a thorough, critical companion to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.
- Jeff Johnson offers a detailed critique of Allen’s book from a definite atonement perspective.
(I’m grateful to B&H Academic who provided a review copy of this textbook, which has not influenced my opinion of the book.)