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The Atonement Controversy
in Welsh Theological Literature & Debate (1707-1841)

(Slightly modified from an article first published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)


The Atonement Controversy in Welsh Theological Literature & Debate (1707-1841)
Author: Owen Thomas
Trans. John Aaron
Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2002
Pp. xl + 392.

As a book on doctrinal controversies in Wales, this work belongs to a rare breed. Its literary history too is unusual. The material now found in The Atonement Controversy was first published as a lengthy chapter in Owen Thomas’ biography of John Jones of Talsarn. John Aaron, who also provides us with a superb introduction, translated the book from Welsh into English.

The author, Owen Thomas (1812-1891) was "one of the leading Welsh scholars of his day" (xi) and "the most respected preacher in Wales" in the 1870s (xii). His classic work on John Jones is "acknowledged generally as the best biography ever written in Welsh" (ix). For this work and his many scholarly articles, he was awarded a D.D. from Princeton in 1877 (xii). John Jones (1796-1857), the subject of Owen Thomas’ biography, was likewise a man of parts. As a child, he could recite the whole New Testament and several Old Testament books. He mastered Greek and Latin and collected possibly the largest library every possessed by a Welsh minister (xiii).

However, both Owen Thomas (the biographer) and John Jones (his subject) compromised the truth of the gospel in Wales. John Jones was a "practical" preacher, "an advocate of a less doctrinal, more socially aware" gospel (xiv). He advocated a more moderate "modification" of Calvinism. Owen Thomas carries John Jones’ position further. "He is on the side of the reformers. He wishes the ‘New System’ to prevail" (xxvi), and has "an element of sympathy towards" the governmental theory of the atonement (xxxiv).

Owen Thomas’ summary of controversies on the extent of the atonement from Augustine to nineteenth century American Presbyterianism (111-150) is deeply flawed at several key points. Gottschalk, he opines, held "extreme views of predestination and election" (118). "Unquestionably," Calvin "considered Christ’s sacrifice as bearing a general aspect and as offered for all mankind so as to establish a ground of hope for all" (123, 124-125). Thomas holds a very weak interpretation of the Canons of Dordt on limited atonement (124-125, 131). The "celebrated" Bishop Davenant is quoted with approval as he compromises Christ’s atonement to find common ground with the Arminians, while Augustus Toplady is sidelined (125). Andrew Fuller in England (130-134) and Drs. Brown and Balmer in Scotland (134-141) are given sympathetic treatment as is Amyrault in France (142-143) and the "New School" in the US (149-150).

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 traces the controversies between Calvinists and Arminians, 1707-1831; part 2 follows the controversies amongst Calvinists, 1811-1841; and part 3 treats the controversies amongst Calvinistic Methodists, 1814-1841.

The same arguments against limited atonement made today were made then, and in both cases the attacks are often made by professed Calvinists. Many were arguing that the atonement was sufficient for all and hence universal. Thus Christ makes salvation possible for all. Temporal blessings were supposedly purchased at the cross for all including the reprobate (159, 163, 164; cf. xxxviii). Some held that God desires the salvation of all (214-215) which also seems to be the view of Owen Thomas (119). God is supposed to love everybody, and this, apparently, is John Aaron’s position too (xvi). Reprobation is largely, if not totally ignored, and paradox theology is evident (160, 276). Apparently there is much truth in Arminianism and eventually peace is made between the "Calvinists" and the Arminians, for we need to evangelise and promote revivals, and, after all, the debates are largely a matter of semantics and God’s truth is larger than human "systems" (103-104, 275-276, 363-364).

Many lessons can be learned from this book. First, it is striking that the debates in Wales began with the preaching of Welsh speaking Arminian Methodists (xv). Heresy always brings disruption. Second, the work as a whole testifies to the influence of false doctrine from abroad. The apostasy started through the followers of Wesley and gained speed through the influence of Finney in the United States (264), but "modified" Calvinism from various parts of the world also leavened Wales. The ideas of Grotius in Holland (through his disciples in many parts of the world), Joseph Bellamy and Samuel Hopkins in New England, and Andrew Fuller and Edward Williams in England, united in the total overthrow of the doctrines of grace in Wales by 1900. In a survey of 1841-1900 (xxxi-xxxix), John Aaron sketches the main lines in the apostasy of the Welsh churches subsequent to Owen Thomas’s narration that covered up to 1841.

After reading Owen Thomas’ work one comes away with at least three nagging concerns. First, Thomas does not believe that the debate over the extent of Christ’s atonement is really as important as many of the protagonists thought it was (363). Second, Thomas would also lead us to think that perhaps, after all, the extent of Christ’s redemption is a tortuously difficult subject shrouded in mystery. Third, the reader might also be tempted to think that this is a subject that has never been decisively dealt with by the church of Christ.

The Canons of Dordt deal effectively with all three issues. Its Second Head of Doctrine ("Of the Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby") is the church’s definitive answer against a death of Christ for all: Christ died for the elect "and those only" (II:8). It states, moreover, that the Arminian theory of an ineffectual, universal atonement "bring[s] again out of hell the Pelagian error"—so this is an important issue (II:R:3). The first line of the "Conclusion" to the Canons of Dordt addresses the subject of the clarity of the five points, which include limited atonement. It reads, "And this is the perspicuous, simple, and ingenuous declaration of the orthodox doctrine respecting the five articles …" Particular atonement is a "perspicuous" and "simple" doctrine. The Scriptures clearly teach it, and a little child can grasp it—Christ died for those whom God has chosen and He did not die for those whom God reprobated. Owen Thomas’ The Atonement Controversy provides plenty of evidence that the theories concocted by those who compromised on this article of God’s truth are both various and complicated. The Arminians and the "moderate" Calvinists fall under the condemnation of the Dordt’s "Conclusion" as those who "controverted" the orthodox faith, "troubled" the churches and "violated all truth, equity, and charity, in wishing to persuade the public."

Jones Jones, the subject of the biography, knew fine well the truth of Christ’s particular redemption. As a teenager, he translated John Owen’s Death of Death into Welsh (xiii)!

Owen Thomas also understood limited atonement. However, he writes with evident approval of the broadening of the mind of Henry Rees, one of the more Calvinistic men of his day. Through "reading and studying" Andrew Fuller and others, Rees had his mind

enlarged to such an extent that, although he never left the essential theology of his old teachers, Dr Goodwin and, particularly, Dr Owen, he yet perceived that there are other truths in the divine revelation, as essential to the gospel as the particular truths emphasized by them, to which they had not paid so much attention (363).

Moreover, it was not only Fuller who "enlarged" Rees’ mind so that he could tolerate Arminianism but "Dr Arnold, Julius Charles Hare and Thomas Carlyle" also had a hand in this broadening process (363)!

Owen Thomas does not voice even a guarded criticism of all this. He concludes in his last paragraph,

Consequently, the preachers amongst us now feel quite free and unfettered, within the confines of revelation, and not bound by any system. Furthermore, and in one sense even more valuable, the people nearly everywhere not only tolerate this but demand it (363-364; italics mine).

Apostasy by now had ripened: "The prophets prophesy falsely … and my people love to have it so" (Jer. 5:31). It started with the incursion of Arminianism through the followers of John Wesley and it ended up like this!

John Aaron rightly warns about "the consequences of acquiescing in a ‘modification’ of Calvinism." His words concerning nineteenth century Wales apply equally to our day:

In the prevailing theological current it was inevitable that any position of small modification could never be maintained; it would only act as a focus for further dilutions. By the time theological stability would be regained, the general theological landscape would be very different (xxvii-xxviii).

The same "wooden horse" (xxxiv) of moderate Calvinism is at work in Presbyterian and Reformed churches today. The notion that God loves everybody and wants to save everybody is eroding the truth of particular redemption, and John Wesley, whose disciples brought the heresy of universal atonement into Wales, is widely touted by professedly Reformed men.

Rev. Angus Stewart