If there is one Reformed doctrine that has received more scorn than the rest, it is the doctrine of limited atonement. It is the product of austere, harsh men, and it certainly has no basis in the Bible. I know a professor of New Testament who exclaims that there are four major 'Christian' doctrines that have falsely been propagated as biblical: premillenial rapture, infant baptism, the cessation of the charismatic gifts, and limited atonement. The other three aside; it seems to me that the doctrine of limited atonement does have very little textual support. For the most part it has been a doctrine argued for by logical deduction. Richard Hays' chapter on Christ's praying of the Psalms in The Conversion of the Imagination has given me new eyes to see this doctrine biblically, though.
Here are a few reflections:
It seems to me that one of the greatest fears in the Psalms is the fear of shame. Especially, throughout the so-called lament Psalms. The two phrases "Let me not be put to shame" or "Let them (my enemies) be put to shame" occur often (cf. Psalm 6, 25, 31, 35, 40, 44, 53, 69, 70, 71, 83, 86, 109, 119, 127, 129 in some of these chapters it occurs multiple times). Shame and honor are the ultimate punishment and reward. The idea of personal shame is horrific, and the shame of one's enemies is the climax of vindication.
What does this have to do with atonement? This is where Hays helps. Romans 15 is of course a chapter that calls the church of Rome to lay down their rights. It is a chapter that obligates the powerful to bear with the other. There is an interesting quotation of Psalm 69 that appears in verse 3: "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me." At face value this quotation only partially makes sense in its Romans 15 context. It is merely reminding the reader that Christ didn't mind a little vicarious suffering. But is this all Paul is trying to communicate? The literary trope of metalepsis may shed a bit more light. If one takes into account the context of Psalm 69, we get a broader picture of Paul's meaning.
"Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts; let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel. For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face... the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me" (Psalm 69:6-9).
Here is Hays, "the Messiah who prays such a prayer in the midst of suffering is a powerful model for the other-regarding conduct that Paul is urging. Paul wants the Roman Christians to echo the prayer of the Messiah by saying, in effect, 'Do not let the one for whom Christ died be put to shame because of me' (cf. Romans 14:15)".
Paul is arguing that there is a specific class of people that should labor to remove internal shame from their midst. Those for whom Christ died should bear with one another. The Church's identification with the death of Christ is an extra motivating factor in intra-ecclesiastical fraternity. If this identification is not unique to the Church, Paul's argument loses much of its force. Neither David nor Paul would, it seems to me, want to argue that vicarious shame has universal impact. Especially, when one remembers David's urge for God to humiliate his enemies (as shown above).
While this may not be the nail in the coffin, it at very least provides a potential biblical trajectory for the doctrine of limited atonement. More importantly for me personally, it gives positive pastoral implications for this austere doctrine. Here we have one more reason to practically love our brothers and sisters. They are those unique few for whom our Savior shed his blood.
Let it be known that I am in no way saying that Richard Hays is implicitly arguing for the Reformed idea of limited atonement in his book. He is definitely not. However, I doubt he would mind a little reader-response 'interpretation'.