J. Mcleod Campbell: Nature of the Atonement

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Campbell, J. Mcleod.  The Nature of the Atonement.  Eerdmans.

Mcleod Campbell represents a different stream of Scottish theology.  It is Reformed theology without limited atonement. His argument, to be presented below, is incomplete in many ways.  He really does not develop a constructive case for universal redemption that would overturn the Owenian dominance in Reformed theology.  On the other hand, his take avoids ALL of the criticisms lobbed at standard Reformed takes on the atonement.

Further, he knows, like many of his traditional critics, that federalism and limited atonement go together.   Summary of thesis: Is the inner relation of God one of abstracted lawgiver or as merciful Father revealed in the innermost being of Jesus?

If God provides the atonement, then forgiveness must precede the atonement.  The atonement is the form of the manifestation of God’s love, not its cause. We begin with the presupposition that God is communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He doesn’t have to be “contracted” into being gracious to us.


It’s not clear how Christ’s “feeling sorry” for my sin actually removes my sin.  Further, it’s not clear on what ground Christ has any right to “feel sorry” for my sin. However, if there is a connection between Incarnation and atonement, and if Christ is consubstantial with us in the Incarnation, then perhaps he does have this right.


Calvin: “God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham” (Comm. Jeremiah 31:31-35). God’s covenant brings obligations, not conditions.

Problem with federalist position: emphasis is on what i have to do IF I am to know I am saved.  More imperative, less indicative.

Opening problems with limited atonement:

  1. No assurance of faith.
  2. Coupled with doctrine of election, this turns us to ourselves and to “evidences.”
  3. Tends to make justice the essential attribute, and love arbitrary.  Perhaps, though divine simplicity functions as a control mechanism that makes this type of thinking impossible.  But the argument here is that the demands of justice must be met before God can be loving.

Mcleod Campbell counters that God is love in his innermost being. This is a key Athanasian insight to which Campbell will return again and again, but he never systematically develops it.

James Torrance summarizes the dynamic this way.  If you and I have a falling out, and I come to you and say, “I forgive you,” it’s a word of love. It’s also a word of condemnation, for I am implying that you are in the wrong.

Campbell doesn’t immediately start with the extent of the atonement.  He says that’s an illustration from the nature of the atonement. “Is it fair to ask men to put their trust in that God of whom we cannot tell them whether He loves them or not” (75)?

Constructive argument:

(1) LA substitutes a legal standing for a filial standing (76).  Campbell points us to Gal. 4:4-5 instead. He sees the problem that we collapse the Fatherhood of God into that of Judge.

(2) LA does not reveal the name of God in Christ–that of love (79).

(3) A prima facie reading of the NT teaches that Christ died for all men (82).  You cannot preach the good news to all otherwise.

(4) Public justice rests upon distributive or absolute justice (83).  Campbell is focusing on the supposed “legal fiction” involved in imputation.

(5) God was not angry at the Son on the cross.  We know this because of perichoresis.

(6) If I can’t know that Christ died for me, how can I truly have filial trust in the Father (98)?

(7) The love of God is the cause of the atonement, not the effect (46). See Romans 5:1ff.  Did the atonement make God loving towards me, or was it because God loved me?

(8) Campbell distinguishes between an atoning sacrifice for sin and a penal substitution (107). Must the Savior experience an equivalent punishment, or an adequate one (119)?

(9) The pardon of sin is connected in direct relation to the gift of eternal life (128).

(10) Christ came not to deliver us from punishment, but to cleanse and purify our worship (144; see Hebrews’ use of Psalm 40).

(11) Christ is “confessing” our sins (145)  This is a filial understanding of atonement.  It brings us to adoption as sons.

(11’) The Father’s heart did demand an atoning of our sins, but so that he could bring us back to filial relation (147).

(12) Union with Christ solves the need for imputed righteousness.  If all is perfect in Christ, and I am in him, then what need is there for imputed righteousness (168)?  There is no “as if” in Christ (222).

(13) There is a corresponding unity and relation between Incarnation and Atonement (228).

(14) The Fatherhood of God is antecedent to God as moral governor (242).  This is precisely the correction Athanasius made to Origen.  If God is eternally Lord and Moral Governor, then there is something he is eternally Lord over.  Thus, eternal Creation.  Thus, Origen.


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