- Union with Christ and the Extent of the Atonement in Calvin
Kennedy's book — originally presented as a 1999 dissertation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — focuses on a specific problem and its [End Page 626] emergence in a specific theological tradition. The problem is as follows: was Jesus's death a death for all of humankind, or was it a death exclusively for those elected by God for salvation? If this theological conundrum strikes you as obscure and insignificant, then you probably do not belong to the Reformed or Calvinist theological tradition. "Traditional Reformed theologians" — or "particularists," as Kennedy calls his primary opponents — emphasize God's predestination of only some of humanity to salvation. By prioritizing predestination, they tend to argue that Jesus died only for the elect, not for the reprobate.
Those with any training in theology or church history will remember the TULIP acronym that summarizes the Reformed/Calvinist doctrinal positions that were articulated at the Synod of Dort. The "L" in TULIP stands for "Limited Atonement." The doctrine of limited atonement holds that Jesus came to die only for a limited group: those already eternally predestined by God to salvation and eternal bliss. There is not room here for a full discussion of how and why this doctrine emerged and continued to characterize much of traditional Reformed theology, but for those interested in this development and its rationale, Kennedy is a splendid guide.
Kennedy's broad argument is that traditional Reformed theology has parted ways with John Calvin on this issue, despite their claims to be Calvin's faithful theological heirs. What Kennedy wants is for theologians to "reread" Calvin "in a new light." The "new light" offered by Kennedy involves replacing predestination or election as the controlling doctrine with a different controlling doctrine, that of "union with Christ." Here Kennedy is squarely in line with much of recent scholarship on Calvin, and his argument adds yet another important strand to this line of Calvin interpretation. What makes Kennedy's contribution unique is his familiarity with the arguments of Reformed scholars who read Calvin differently. Kennedy explores their arguments thoroughly and explains in clear terms why traditional Reformed theology is actually a misreading of Calvin's theological concerns. I found that Kennedy was at his best in the detailed discussion of passages from Calvin. His criticism of "limited atonement" advocates as misreaders of Calvin himself is, as an argument, devastating.
The constructive proposal that accompanies Kennedy's critique of traditional Reformed atonement theory is a call to prioritize the notion of "union with Christ" in the theology of Calvin. Kennedy just assumes that any good Reformed theologian would want to follow Calvin as closely as possible on any possible subject. On those terms, it is hard to resist his conclusion that Calvin held that Jesus's death was a death for all of humanity. In other words, Calvin held that Jesus offered himself as a "substitute" for all of humankind. In theological terms, this means that the extent of the atonement [End Page 627] was universal. Yet traditional Reformed theologians worried that such a claim would lead logically to the claim that all of humanity will be saved. Kennedy explores Calvin's doctrine of "union with Christ" as a way of showing that universal salvation need not — indeed, did not in Calvin's case — follow from the claim of universal atonement. The reason for this is that Calvin distinguished between the elect and the damned not at the level of the atonement, but rather at the level of union with Christ. The most significant part of the book is Kennedy's explanation of Calvin's soteriology. The benefits of Jesus's death accrue only to those who are united to him by faith, in spite of the fact that Jesus died for all.
While Kennedy's book is exquisitely argued, it would have benefited from a lengthier discussion of the general significance of...