Consistent with his commercialism, [John] Owen insisted that God’s justice was only satisfied by Christ’s payment of the same quantitative penalty or debt owed by the elect to God on account of their sins–the solutio ejusdem.31 Baxter (following Grotius at the only point where he could do so with any real justification) argued that, in virtue of the differences (in detail and duration) between Christ’s sufferings and the actual sufferings of the lost, Christ only paid a qualitative equivalent–the solutio tantidem.32 Since the penalty of the law threatens eternal punishment to impenitent offenders, Christ clearly did not suffer the identical punishment, for his resurrection terminated his banishment.33 God therefore relaxed the law with regard both to the persons who should suffer (which Owen obviously agreed with)3434 and to the penalty suffered. Clearly, there was not the ‘sameness’ Owen pleads for.

Although a strict particularist like William Cunningham denied the importance of this issue,35 Owen saw clearly that his doctrine of limited atonement hung upon the ‘sameness’ between Christ’s sufferings and those deserved by the elect. However, he could only argue his case with the aid of Aristotle’s metaphysics. His very language betrays him: ‘When I say the same, I mean essentially the same in weight and pressure, though not in all the accidents of duration and the like; for it was impossible that he should be detained by death.’36 He therefore resorts to Aristotle’s dubious essence-accidents theory37 to prove his point. In Baxter’s view even this statement ‘yieldeth the cause,’38 but after learning of Baxter’s criticism Owen granted that ‘There is a sameness in Christ’s sufferings with that in the obligation in respect of essence, and equivalency in respect of attendencies.’39

But Owen’s use of this philosophical distinction simply obscures the fact that there is a real difference between Christ’s temporary sufferings and the eternal sufferings deserved by the elect. He cannot establish his concept of ‘sameness’ without philosophical double-talk. If he is prepared to grant an equivalence in either respect, he is forced to concede that there is only a similarity, and not a sameness at all. Clearly, Aristotle’s metaphysical formula40 only serves to permit unreal and meaningless distinctions. Had Baxter been as nimble as David Hume41 at this point, he would have exploded Owen’s case; however, Aristotle had a few more years to reign in scholastic circles. In view of later criticism of ‘the philosopher’ it is possible to see how Owen’s questionable commercialism falls to the ground, and with it the classical doctrine of limited atonement. In other words, he cannot demonstrate that the sufferings of Christ were commensurate with the deserved sufferings of the elect without the doubtful support of Aristotle. He fails, therefore, to prove that the atonement is necessarily limited by its nature. Indeed, his thesis requires that the sinner be eternally saved at the ‘expense’ of the Saviour’s eternal loss.

The idemtantundem distinction automatically answers Owen’s objection that if any suffer eternally for whom Christ died, then ‘double payment’ is being demanded. But assuming the commercialist analogy, there is no duplication of payment. Those who reject the gospel do not suffer again what Christ has suffered for them. He ‘paid’ the tantundem, or equivalent penalty; they will ‘pay’ the idem, or exact price.

Without denying that there are serious inadequacies in the governmental theory, the tantundem view of satisfaction is a valid and valuable insight. It is not handicapped by questions of intrinsic quantitative limitation. From this standpoint Christ may be seen as a substitute for all in general, though for the elect in particular. His satisfaction is applicable to all, if applied only to some. The question of numerical extent only arises in the application of the atonement, a point the Old Testament illustrates perfectly. Whereas the provision of atonement in Israel was coextensive with the nation, though enjoyed only by the faithful, the provision of Calvary extends to all the world, though many reject it. Furthermore, the commercial theory cannot really do justice to the gospel as a revelation of grace. Although Owen correctly argues that the giving of Christ to the elect was a gracious act of God,42 he implies that salvation is simply the payment of what God owes them.43

Alan C. Clifford, Atonement and Justification (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 128-130. [Footnotes and values original; italics original; bracketed insert mine; and underlining mine.]


31DD 267 ff.

32Aphorismes of Justification (London, 1649), Appendix, pp. 137 ff.

33Baxter does not deny a qualitative similarity between Christ’s actual sufferings and the deserved sufferings of sinners, but denies that there was a comprehensive, penal ‘sameness’. ‘Nor could Christ’s sufferings be equal in degree, intensively and extensively, to all that was deserved by the world: . . . seeing our deserved suffering lay in things of such a nature, as to be left in sin itself, destitute of God’s image, and love and communion, under his hatred, tormented in conscience; besides the everlasting torments of hell . . . Yet did Christ suffer more in soul than in body, being at the present deprived of that kind of sense of God’s love, . . . and having on his soul the deep sense of God’s displeasure with sinners and of his hatred of sin, though no sense of God’s hatred to himself . . . . and so he bore the sorrow of our transgressions, and was so far forsaken of God for that time, and not further’ (CT 1. ii. 40).

34DD 269-70.

35Historical Theology, ii. 306-7. Cunningham fails to appreciate Owen’s point that without the idem view, it is impossible to prove from the nature of the atonement that it is limited to the elect. The solution advanced by Cunningham is virtually indistinguishable from the view Owen is anxious to refute.

36DD 269-70.

37Bertrand Russell described this as a ‘muddle-headed notion, incapable of precision’ (The History of Western Philosophy (London 1961), 177).

38Aphorismes, Appendix, p. 138.

39Works, x. 448.

40‘The essence of a thing is that which it is said to be per se‘ ” Accident” also denotes that which belongs to a thing per se, though no part of its essence’ (Metaphysics, trans. J. Warrington (London, 1956), 173; 46).

41See Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1. vi. (London, 19II), i. 24. The metaphysical point which Hume highlights is that a thing is what its accidents are. Once the accidents or properties are logically separated from the essence or substance, nothing can be meaningfully said about the essence. In short, ‘essence’ denotes nothing at all. Therefore, if two things differ in their accidents, they are really different whatever else might be said of them. In other words, if the details and duration of Christ’s sufferings are only equivalent to the threatened punishment of sinners, they are not the same, although they are undoubtedly similar. Owen’s misconception may be illustrated by another: the theory of transubstantiation. After the prayer of consecration the sacramental bread is believed to be essentially different, though accidentally the same as before. But a real miracle would have occurred had the accidents of the bread (taste, texture, colour, etc.) become the accidents of Christ’s actual body. Applying this to Owen’s analysis, an accidental difference between Christ’s sufferings and the punishment threatening sinners means that they are really different, and not the same.

42DD 268-9.

43Fuller argues that the commercial theory is ‘inconsistent with the free forgiveness of sin, and sinners being directed to apply for mercy as supplicants, rather than as claimants‘ (Works, p. 134). R. Wardlaw writes: ‘the payment of debt, by strictly and literally canceling all claim, leaves no room for the exercise of grace’ (Systematic Theology (London, 1856), ii. 369).

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