There are a number of passages in the New Testament to which four-point Calvinists refer in debates against those who hold to the doctrine of “limited” or “particular” atonement (e.g., 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:4–6; 4:10; Hebrews 2:9; and Acts 17:30). Indeed, the arguments on either side of the exegesis are not air tight. One of the most difficult passages for those who hold to limited atonement is 1 John 2:2, which says, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also of the whole world.” The phrase “the whole world” later in 1 John 5:19 seems to refer to all people without exception—especially unbelievers. At the level of pure exegetical considerations—isolated and insulated from its historical and theological context—the passage seems, as Ryrie says, “to say rather clearly that the death of Christ was for the whole world” (Ryrie, Basic Theology, 321).
However, if we open our interpretation of 1 John 2:2 to the insights of the historical and theological context, the picture becomes, well, less clear than critics of limited atonement may think. The Martyrdom of Polycarp was written around AD 155 by Christians in Smyrna shortly after their bishop, Polycarp, was martyred in the stadium there. Polycarp, recall, was a personal disciple of the apostle John, and was—according to reliable tradition—one of many Asian pastors who had been ordained into pastoral ministry by John while he lived in Ephesus. In fact, if the “angels” of Revelation 2 and 3 refer to the pastors (or bishops) of those churches, as some commentators say, Polycarp may have been the “angel” of the church of Smyrna. Anyway, Polycarp is also one of the earliest witnesses we have of 1 John, as he seems to rely on 1 John 3:8 and 4:2–3 in his Letter to the Philippians 7. In short, Polycarp knew John’s writings and probably knew John himself.
With this historical background in mind, the statement of the Smyrnaeans in Martyrdom of Polycarp 17.2 is rather interesting as we consider the issue of 1 John 2:2 and debates between those who hold to limited atonement and those who do not. The Smyrnaeans wrote: “They [the pagans] did not know that we [Christians] will never be able either to abandon the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those who are saved, the blameless on behalf of sinners, or to worship anyone else.”
So, the Smyrnaeans refer to the “whole world” with the exact language as the apostle John in reference not to all people everywhere, but to the world of the saved. That is to say, Christ is savior of the “catholic” church. He not only died for the sins of their own community in Asia Minor (as local deities or gods might be the “savior” of that particular community), but also for the sins of the whole world (as the universal savior of all believers throughout the world).
This passage in Martyrdom of Polycarp may amount to an indirect commentary or interpretation of 1 John 2:2. In fact, it could very well reflect the apostle John’s intended meaning of that passage. If the Smyrnaean authors of Martyrdom were reflecting Polycarp’s understanding of 1 John 2:2 (which to me is almost certain), Polycarp may have been relaying John’s original understanding of that phrase (which is possible), since Polycarp knew John.
A good friend of mine has pointed out that John Owen refers to this statement by the Smyrnaeans as patristic testimony for limited atonement in his Death of Death (Banner of Truth edition, page 310). Owen does not, however, elaborate on the implications of this statement by the Smyrnaeans with regard to their personal (and therefore theological) relationship to John through Polycarp.
Those who hold to limited atonement may feel that their own interpretation of 1 John 2:2 is strengthened by these historical considerations, since we might have a window (through Polycarp) into the apostle John’s own intention of the passage. However, those who reject limited atonement may still do so, even appealing to their own understanding of this and other passages. But to be fair, those who reject limited atonement can not claim that 1 John 2:2 is a clear proof text against that irritating third point of Calvinism.