Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nicole critiques Kendall's view of assurance

I am continuing my review of Roger Nicole's article on Calvin's doctrine of the atonement. Part of Nicole's article is devoted to a critique of R. T. Kendall's book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. This book is a very interesting read for the student of history and an important one for the student of theology.

After Nicole's general criticism of Kendall, covered in my previous blog entry, Nicole briefly analyzed Kendall's assertion that Calvin saw a strong connection between faith and assurance. Kendall, quoting Calvin, said this:

For since he necessarily hates sin, how shall we be convinced that He loves us until those sins for which He is justly angry with us have been expiated? Thus before we can have any feeling of His fatherly kindness, the blood of Christ must intercede to reconcil God to us. [Footnote, Calvin, Comm. John 3:16]

This statement reveals why Calvin feels so strongly about a universal expiation by Christ's death; Christ's deat is that to which we look because it is the 'pledge' that God loves us. Calvin does not direct us to God's secret decree; it is 'Christ alone' to Whom 'faith ought to look'. [Footnote, Comm. John 3:16. Cf. Comm. John 15:9....] For 'we are to learn to fix our eyes on the death of Christ, whenever our salvation is concerned'. [Footnote, Calvin, Comm. Rom. 5:11.]

Had Christ died only for those whom God had chosen by His secret decree, then, it would obviously cease to be a pledge to all.

For Kendall, this strong connection in Calvin's theology between faith and assurance made it impossible for Calvin to have taught limited atonement. Nicole criticizes that argument:

The close connection posited by Kendall between universal atonement and the assurance of faith must also be challenged, for universal atonement is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me. It is not sufficient since on Kendall’s showing, all covered by the atonement will not be saved; assurance, if it is to be reliable, needs to be grounded in something that actually makes a difference between the saved and the lost.

Nicole, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 197 at 204-205.

Universal atonement such as Kendal posits, Nicole alleges, is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. Let's examine this argument. First, universal atonement is not necessary for assurance. It is not necessary for I can know the effect it has on me though I may not know the effect it has on anyone else.

Second, universal atonement is not sufficient for assurance. It is not sufficient, he says, because some who are covered by the atonement will not be saved. So a person could feel insecure because the atonement doesn't necessarily save anyone. I can only trust in that which makes a difference and only some other factor, something other than the atonement, makes a difference, therefore I must look to that other thing — my own faith perhaps? — for assurance.

I have several objections to Nicole's argument here. First, the strong connection between the atonement and assurance is not original with Kendall, it comes directly from Calvin. Anyone familiar with Calvin's commentary to John 3:16 will admit this.

For God so loved the world. Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God.

* * *

He gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him may not perish. This, he says, is the proper look of faith, to be fixed on Christ, in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love: this is a firm and enduring support, to rely on the death of Christ as the only pledge of that love. The word only-begotten is emphatic,... to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. But we ought rather to consider that, in proportion to the estimation in which God holds his only-begotten Son, so much the more precious did our salvation appear to him, for the ransom of which he chose that his only-begotten Son should die.

Calvin, Comment to John 3:16. Our minds cannot find repose, says Calvin, unless we discover proof of the unmerited love of God. Jesus assures us emphatically of the fervor of God's love. And here is a firm and enduring support on which the mind of sinful man can rest. God has testified his love for me by sending his only-begotten Son on my behalf.

It seems to me that Kendall was quite correct to point out Calvin's views on assurance. In the Institutes, Calvin makes the knowledge of God's favor an essential element in saving faith. (See Institutes 3.2.7.) Count Zinzendorf captured this spirit very well in his famous hymn, Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness

Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
Which, at the mercy seat of God,
Forever doth for sinners plead,
For me, e’en for my soul, was shed.

Lord, I believe were sinners more
Than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
For all a full atonement made.

When from the dust of death I rise
To claim my mansion in the skies,
Ev’n then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.

More objections to Nicole's argument on this point next time.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Nicole's critique of R. T. Kendall's view of history

I am going to devote a few articles to Roger Nicole's criticism of R. T. Kendall, which appears in Nicole's well-known article on Calvin and limited atonement. (John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. (Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 197-225).)

Roger Nicole spends a few paragraphs critiquing R. T. Kendall's 1979 book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford University Press, 1979, 2d ed. Paternoster, 1997).

Kendall's radical thesis

Let me preface this discussion by saying that I was personally devastated by Kendall's analysis. Not only is Kendall's book eye-opening, his analysis amounts to a stunning critique of the reformed doctrine of faith. Kendall shows that the trajectory of reformed theology has been significantly altered by the theologians that followed Calvin, particularly the theological heritage of Perkins and Ames. Though Kendall spends a sparse few pages on the doctrine of limited atonement, he shows convincingly that Calvin could not have held to limited atonement by virtue of the very nature of Calvin's doctrine of faith. Comparing modern reformed theology to Calvin, today's reformed theology has a completely different doctrine of faith. Though Kendall hits at limited atonement only indirectly, his blow is shattering.

If you think, dear reader, that I am exaggerating, I assure you that I am not. Kendall's thesis is radical: it lays the axe to the root of the tree.

Nicole's criticism of Kendall

Nicole's criticism of Kendall can be summarized in these two points:

  1. Either Kendall is right or the reformed theologians of four centuries of history, from Beza to B. B. Warfield, are right.
  2. Kendall has badly misread Calvin. Kendall selects his quotations, his evidence is ambiguous, and Kendall quotes Calvin out of context. The imagined connection in Calvin's theology between assurance and universal redemption is a figment of the imagination.

I will cover the first point in this article, then take up the second point in an article or two to follow. First, here is Nicole's broad criticism of Kendall:

1979 saw the appearance of R. T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. In this volume the author attempts to document that there is a great chasm between Calvin’s theology and that of his successor Beza, followed in turn by William Perkins and others and culminating in the Westminster Assembly, which unconsciously was veering in the direction of Arminianism rather than proceeding in the path delineated by Calvin. This extremely paradoxical thesis appears to rest primarily upon the observation that Calvin grounded the assurance of faith in the conviction “that Christ died indiscriminately for all men” and included this assurance in the very “essence of faith.” The same position is espoused in Kendall’s essay on “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology” in John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, a work otherwise in line with traditional Calvinism. Kendall’s position was very vigorously disputed in devastating reviews by A. N. S. Lane, W. Stanford Reid, and especially Paul Helm.

On the face of it Kendall’s view appears well-nigh incredible, for it implies that practically all the Calvinist successors of Calvin from Beza to Warfield and beyond, passing through the Synod of Dort delegates and the members of the Westininster Assembly, were basically wrong concerning the major direction of their theology. To call the Westminster Assembly doctrine of faith “crypto-Arminian” is preposterous. Kendall’s position impugns also practically all the Arminian theologians for failing to recognize that Calvin was their ally in the matter of the extent of the atonement, and the Calvinists with respect to the nature of faith! Frankly, it is easier to believe that Kendall is wrong rather than this whole galaxy of theologians!

Nicole, 203-204, citations omitted.

Calvin couldn't have taught unlimited atonement — could he?

The argument that nearly every reader of reformed literature makes to himself at one time or another when confronting the Calvin problem is this one: Calvin couldn't have taught unlimited atonement. He just couldn't have! Why, if he did, then the whole reformed community has been wrong about him! Surely Calvin believed TULIP!

That stubborn refusal to deal with Calvin's theology on its own terms because of the weight of contrary expert authority is one of the stock arguments against the idea that Calvin taught unlimited atonement. But it is a fallacy. Though all those men — from Beza to Warfield — may have misread Calvin, whether they did or didn't is irrelevant to the question of Calvin's meaning when he wrote, for example, the following:

Luke goes still farther in showing that the salvation brought by Christ is common to the whole human race, in as much as Christ; the author of salvation is descended from Adam, the common father of us all.

Institutes, 2.3.3. Kendall can read Calvin too, and he has made an analysis for our benefit. Kendall has criticized the theologians who followed Calvin. But that criticism cannot be wrong merely because it is a criticism. Nicole, in answering Kendall, has simply counted noses and concluded that because more theologians believe Calvin taught limited atonement, he must have done so. What authority can that have against an actual reading and analysis of Calvin and his reformed successors?

I submit that it has no authority.

One problem that is often encountered in scholarly literature is the genetic fallacy writ large. Expert A analyzes something and comes to some conclusion: let's call it conclusion Z. Expert B believes A and simply repeats his analysis uncritically. Expert C follows B and before you know it, a universe of experts —or even a galaxy of theologians — has supported conclusion Z.

But what if expert A was wrong? That is what Kendall has said. Now I am not saying that the galaxy of theologians has simply followed Beza, Perkins, or Ames or anybody in particular — the problem has not come up in that simple obvious manner. But if Kendall is right, it has arisen in something like that manner. That this is the case is shown by Nicole's argument itself. Nicole's criticism of Kendall is essentially just expert following expert. Kendall can't be right, says Nicole, because of the galaxy of theologians.

Kendall cannot be dismissed in this frivolous manner, merely because he has disagreed with the understanding of a significant historical movement. Fifty million Frenchmen can be wrong, and it is certainly not ipso facto wrong to criticize them. Further, Kendall's criticism is a strong one and ought to be taken up in a serious manner, not simply tossed aside.

Was the Westminster Assembly "crypto-Arminian?"

Yes, Kendall did say that the Westminster Assembly's doctrine of faith was crypto-Arminian. One must keep this criticism in perspective, though. Kendall was saying that the Assembly's doctrine of faith is crypto-Arminian, not their doctrine of depravity, free will, sovereignty of God, election, or predestination.

Further, Kendall has provided specific criticisms with reference to the thoughts of specific theologians. He has made thorough comparisons of those thoughts with Calvin's own. Nicole's dismissal of Kendall's argument as "preposterous" is a disservice to the intelligent reader.

As a brief summary of Kendall's thought on this point, I make the following observations.

First, Kendall criticizes the Assembly's doctrine of faith as voluntaristic. That is, reformed theology sees faith as an act of the will, where Calvin sees faith as knowledge. Calvin's viewpoint is obvious from Calvin's definition of faith in the Institutes:

We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

Not only is faith knowledge, but it is "firm and sure knowledge." Calvin did see assurance as essential to Christian faith.

And finally, this knowledge is received passively. Whereas an act of the will is, by its very nature, active, Calvin sees faith as passively received. Kendall quotes Calvin to this effect: faith is "something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God's favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack." Kendall, 19, quoting Institutes 3.13.5. (Compare Calvin's comment on John 6:29.)

Second, Kendall criticizes the Assembly's doctrine as implying that faith follows repentance. The reformed theologians after Beza emphasized, to a greater or lesser extent, the idea of repentance as preparation for faith. Calvin rejected this; he saw faith as producing repentance:

Now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith.... There are some, however, who suppose that repentance precedes faith, rather than flows from it, or is produced by it as fruit from a tree. Such persons have never known the power of repentance, and are moved to feel this way by an unduly slight argument.

Insititutes 3.3.1. Compare also this quote about preparation:

We are all sinners by nature, therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man is subject to the dominion of sin, surely the will, which is its principal seat, must be bound with the closest chains. And, indeed, if divine grace were preceded by any will of ours, Paul could not have said that “it is God which worketh in us both to will and to do” (Phi 2:13). Away, then, with all the absurd trifling which many have indulged in with regard to preparation.

Institutes 2.2.27. Repentance, which is an act of the will, is "bound with the closest chains," and requires God's work to produce it. Thus for Calvin, repentance cannot be a preparation for faith.

It is in these respects that Kendall criticizes the Westminster Assembly's doctrine of faith as crypto-Arminian. Nicole does not answer or even address Kendall's criticisms on these points — apart from his casual comments that the criticisms are "paradoxical," "well-nigh incredible," and "preposterous."

More on this subject next time.

Friday, November 02, 2007

W. G. T. Shedd on 1John 2:2 - Conclusion

In the Editor’s Preface to the third edition of W. G. T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology, Alan W. Gomes writes that "modern evangelical systems tend to be weaker precisely at those points where Shedd’s is most robust." In this blogger’s opinion, the statement is true with respect not only to modern evangelicalism, but with respect to modern evangelical Calvinism as well. Today’s Calvinism has a view of God that is myopic, emphasizing the sovereignty of God to the exclusion of His love of all mankind. Shedd’s view of the mercy of God would tend to counteract that defect. Here is a marvelous passage, in which Shedd extols the mercy of God as shown in the free offer of the gospel:

The Christian gospel--the universal offer of pardon through the self-sacrifice of one of the divine persons--should silence every objection to the doctrine of endless punishment. For as the case now stands, there is no necessity, so far as the action of God is concerned, that a single human being should ever be the subject of future punishment * * *

For the Scriptures everywhere describe God as naturally and spontaneously merciful and declare that all the legal obstacles to the exercise of this great attribute have been removed by the death of the Son of God 'for the sins of the whole world' (1 John 2:2). In the very center of the holy revelations of Sinai, Jehovah proclaimed it to be his inherent and intrinsic disposition to be 'merciful and gracious, long-suffering, forgiving iniquity and transgression' (Exod. 34:6-7). Nehemiah, after the exile, repeats the doctrine of the Pentateuch: 'You are a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, and of great kindness' (Neh. 9:17). The psalmist declares that 'the Lord is ready to forgive and plenteous in mercy unto all that call upon him' (Ps. 86:5); 'the Lord takes pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy' (147:11). From the twilight of the land of Uz, Elihu, feeling after the promised Redeemer if haply he might find him (Job 33:23), declares that 'God looks upon men, and if any say, I have sinned and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not; he will deliver his soul from going down to the pit, and his life shall see the light' (33:27-28). The Bible throughout teaches that the Supreme Being is sensitive to penitence and is moved with compassion and paternal yearning whenever he perceives any sincere spiritual grief. He notices and welcomes the slightest indication of repentance: 'The eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him, upon them that hope in his mercy' (Ps. 33:18); 'whoso confesses and forsakes his sins shall have mercy' (Prov. 28:13). The heavenly Father sees the prodigal when he is 'yet a great way off.' He never 'breaks the bruised reed' nor 'quenches the smoking flax.' If there be in any human creature the broken and contrite heart, divine pity speaks the word of forgiveness and absolution. The humble confession of unworthiness operates almost magically upon the eternal. Incarnate mercy said to the heathen 'woman of Canaan' who asked for only the dogs' crumbs, 'O woman, great is your faith; be it unto you even as you will' (Matt. 15:28). The omnipotent is overcome whenever he sees lowly penitential sorrow. As 'the foolishness of God is wiser than man,' so the self-despairing helplessness of man is stronger than God. When Jacob says to the infinite one, 'I am not worthy of the least of all your mercies,' yet wrestled with him 'until the breaking of the day,' he becomes Israel and 'as a prince has power with God' (Gen. 32:10, 24, 28). When Jehovah hears Ephraim 'bemoaning himself,' and saying, 'Turn me, and I shall be turned,' he answers, 'Ephraim is my dear son. I will surely have mercy upon him' (Jer. 31:18, 20).

Now the only obstruction, and it is a fatal one, to the exercise of this natural and spontaneous mercy of God is the sinner's hardness of heart.

W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3d. edition, pages 930-931. In Shedd’s theology of 1John 2:2, we see a well-rounded view of God’s love for the whole world as expressed in Christ’s expiatory work.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

More W. G. T. Shedd on 1John 2:2

In Shedd’s view of Christ’s expiation for the sins of mankind, the work of Christ is not merely theoretical. Christ has done all that is necessary for the sins of man to be forgiven. In relation to God’s justice, Christ’s atonement cancels the claims of the law against the human race:

In the third place, atonement, either personal or vicarious, naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims. This means that there is such a natural and necessary correlation between vicarious atonement and justice that the former supplies all that is required by the latter. It does not mean that Christ’s vicarious atonement naturally and necessarily saves every man; because the relation of Christ’s atonement to divine justice is one thing, but the relation of a particular person to Christ’s atonement is a very different thing. Christ’s death as related to the claims of the law upon all mankind cancels those claims wholly. It is an infinite "propitiation for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). But the relation of an impenitent person to this atonement is that of unbelief and rejection of it. Consequently, what the atonement has effected objectively in reference to the attribute of divine justice is not effected subjectively in the conscience of the individual. There is an infinite satisfaction that naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims, but unbelief derives no benefit from the fact.

W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3d. edition, page 724. This being the case, the gospel can be freely offered to all:

The atonement is sufficient in value to expiate the sin of all men indiscriminately; and this fact should be stated because it is a fact. There are no claims of justice not yet satisfied; there is no sin of man for which an infinite atonement has not been provided. All things are now ready. Therefore the call to come is universal. It is plain, that the offer of the atonement should be regulated by its intrinsic nature and sufficiency, not by the obstacles that prevent its efficacy. The extent to which a medicine is offered is not limited by the number of persons favorably disposed to buy it and use it. Its adaptation to disease is the sole consideration in selling it, and consequently it is offered to everybody.

Shedd, page 750. The man who refuses the benefit of what Christ has done effectively limits the atonement by his unbelief. Christ has done all that is necessary for the salvation of every man as far as God’s justice is concerned. For those who refuse the gracious offer of Christ’s expiation, justice will be satisfied another way.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Calvin, Heshusius, and limited atonement

Well, I have finally completed the Heshusius article. I put the article in pdf format so you can download it to your computer and have it look nice.

[UPDATE June, 2009. I consider myself web-savvy and all ... but I have had a great deal of difficulty figuring out exactly how to publish this paper in a nice form without spending money. :-) The link above goes to an html document published on Google docs. I have the Heshusius paper in pdf form also, which I'll send you by email if you request it. Just send me your email address asking for the Heshusius pdf and I'll get it right out to you.]

The article is a compilation of the thoughts on the Heshusius matter that I have posted on this blog, edited and (hopefully) improved.

I invite your comments, suggestions, and editorial remarks. I hope you find it interesting and profitable. Working on this project had a major impact on my theology of the Lord's Supper. Calvin always does that to me.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

W. G. T. Shedd on 1John 2:2

In this series of articles on the theology of 1John 2:2, I am attempting to show that there is a substantial minority report among Calvinistic and reformed theologians on the meaning of "the whole world" in that passage. In my previous blog entry on this topic, I gave W. G. T. Shedd’s view of limited atonement: "Atonement is unlimited, and redemption is limited." Because Shedd had that view, he was at liberty to see universal aspects of Christ’s atonement in those passages of scripture that speak of the atonement as universal.

In describing the effect produced on the conscience of believers by the reconciliation of God and man, Shedd does not hesitate to say that Christ died for the whole world:

The human conscience is the mirror and index of the divine attribute of justice. The two are correlated. What therefore God's justice demands, man's conscience demands. "Nothing," says Matthew Henry, "can pacify an offended conscience but that which satisfied an offended God." The peace which the believer in Christ’s atonement enjoys, and which is promised by the Redeemer to the believer, is the subjective experience in man that corresponds to the objective reconciliation in God. The pacification of the human conscience is the consequence of the satisfaction of divine justice. God’s justice is completely satisfied for the sin of man by the death of Christ. This is an accomplished fact: "Jesus Christ the righteous is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2). The instant any individual man of this world of mankind believes that divine justice is thus satisfied, his conscience is at rest. The belief is not needed in order to establish the fact. Whether a sinner believes Christ died for sin or not will make no difference with the fact, though it will make a vast difference with him: "If we believe not, yet he abides faithful: he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim. 2:13). Unbelief cannot destroy a fact. Should not a soul henceforth believe on the Son of God, it would nevertheless be a fact that he died an atoning death on Calvary and that this death is an ample oblation for the sin of the world. But it must be remembered that the kind of belief by which a man obtains a personal benefit from the fact of Christ’s death is experimental, not historical or hearsay. * * * And a sinful man may have no skeptical doubt that the death of Christ on Mount Calvary has completely expiated human guilt and may even construct a strong argument in proof of the fact and still have all the miserable experience of an unforgiven sinner, may still have remorse and the fear of death and the damnation of hell.

W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3d. edition, pages 708-9, emphasis added.

One need not be puzzled by Shedd’s statements; he simply saw two aspects to the work of Christ: the universal expiation and the particular application. Part III from Shedd will follow in a few days.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

W. G. T. Shedd on Unlimited Atonement and Limited Redemption

I plan to post four essays on W. G. T. Shedd's understanding of 1John 2:2. I originally wrote these essays for another blog, but I have wanted to post this material on Shedd here for some time. Since I am currently busy reading RT Kendall (I'm nearly done), I thought I would take this opportunity to brush up this material and post it here.

I hope to show that the "reformed" understanding of 1John 2:2 is not monolithic. There is a minority report, which offers a sensible alternative to the interpretation offered by many modern reformed theologians.

W. G. T. Shedd

W. G. T. Shedd, a Presbyterian Pastor and theologian of the 19th century, wrote a 3-volume work entitled Dogmatic Theology. In this work, Shedd affirms a species of limited atonement, though he quarrels with the ambiguous use of certain terms associated with the dispute, and thus affirms, to be precise, limited redemption. I quote from the third edition (a much improved one-volume edition of Shedd's work, issued by P&R Publishing in 2003).

Since redemption implies the application of Christ’s atonement, universal or unlimited redemption cannot logically be affirmed by any who hold that faith is wholly the gift of God and that saving grace is bestowed solely by election. The use of the term redemption, consequently, is attended with less ambiguity than that of "atonement," and it is the term most commonly employed in controversial theology. Atonement is unlimited, and redemption is limited. This statement includes all the scriptural texts: those which assert that Christ died for all men, and those which assert that he died for his people. He who asserts unlimited atonement and limited redemption cannot well be misconceived. He is understood to hold that the sacrifice of Christ is unlimited in value, sufficiency, and publication, but limited in its effectual application.

Page 743 (emphasis added). Thus, for Shedd, there are both universal and particular aspects of Christ's work, and that helps us to understand the texts that speak universally. (My readers might find it interesting to compare R. L. Dabney's distinction between "atonement" and "reconciliation").

As Calvinists we ought not to overstate our case or take alarm at the idea that Christ died for all. More to come from Shedd soon.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A word about the blog

My apologies to the thousands of you :-) who read my blog regularly. I have been working on a response to Roger Nicole's handling of R. T. Kendall, and found that it required more background preparation on my part than I had anticipated. I have decided to read Kendall's book in full, and I'm working on that now.

Let me just say that the Kendall thesis looks pretty good to me, and I will have an interesting article or two for you in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future. I should also say that Kendall's thesis is far more radical than it has been given credit for.

Be sure to check out today's entry on a comparison of John Flavel's universalistic and particularistic statements.

Comparison of the Universalistic and Particularistic John Flavel

Some Christian doctrine is difficult. It challenges our self-image by bringing us face to face with the limits of the finite. To put it plainly, we don't know everything, and God sometimes tells us things that would require more knowledge than we possess to properly understand.

(That doesn't mean, of course, that we ought to reject the truth or succumb to skepticism.)

Calvin's universalism and particularism

Calvin's doctrine of the atonement is one of those doctrines that we find it difficult to believe. There is no dispute that Calvin believed in predestination. There ought to be no dispute, on the other hand, that he also taught that Christ died for all men. Many who read Calvin, including eminent scholars, find Calvin's doctrine of predestination irreconcilable with the idea of universal atonement. And so they reject Calvin's plainly universalistic statements. He must have taught limited atonement, or else he could not have held to predestination. (See Paul Helm, for example.)

John Flavel's universalism and particularism

But not all theologians who followed in the Calvinistic tradition had such skeptical reactions. John Flavel is a good example.

My friend Tony Byrne has posted several quotations from John Flavel on his blog lately. Consider this strongly universalistic statement from Flavel that Tony posted on his blog on September 3rd:

[T]he first motions of mercy and salvation to you freely arise out of his grace and good pleasure. God entreats you to be reconciled. 2 Cor. 5 : 20. The blessed Lord Jesus, whose blood thy sins have shed, now freely offers that blood for thy reconciliation, justification, and salvation, if thou wilt but sincerely accept him ere it be too late.

Here is Flavel speaking of Christ's blood having been shed for the sins of all sinners. Very much in the vein of Calvin's thought.

On the other hand, here is Flavel with a strongly particularistic statement. Flavel speaks here of Isaiah 53:12:

In this verse we have, 1. His work. * * * His work, which was indeed a hard work, to pour out his soul unto death, aggravated by the companions, with whom, being numbered with transgressors; the capacity in which, bearing all the sins of the elect, "he bare the sins of many"....

So which is it?

Did Christ die for all — or did he die for the elect?

The answer, of course, is, "both." Christ died for all men in some senses (which include redemptive and gracious purposes) though these senses do not necessarily reach to actual application of the eternal salvation purchased by Christ. From Flavel's universalistic and particularistic statements, I conclude that he held to some sort of dual aspect to the atonement, probably along lines similar to Calvin.

How does one reconcile universalism with particularism? Well, there are ways —there is always a way— though these ways may seem artificial or speculative. But we must accept the plain statements of scripture, though we may find them difficult —or impossible— to reconcile. To paraphrase R. L. Dabney, it would be exceeding presumption to suppose that because we do not see a reconciliation to the problem, none can be known to God.

Friday, August 10, 2007

More about Calvin on 1Timothy 2:4

One of my commenters, — anonymous" by name — referring to a criticism I made of Roger Nicole, posted this comment:

Anonymous said...

Remember that Nicole used the alleged emphatic repudiation to bolster the idea that Calvin taught particularism in the atonement. But in this quote we see Calvin distinctly teaching that God's grace extends to those who ultimately reject it.

How do you explain what Calvin said concerning 1 Tim 2:4:

"Since no one but he who is drawn by the secret influence of the Spirit can approach unto God, how is it that God does not draw all men indiscriminately to himself, if he really 'wills all men to be saved'?"

This quote is taken from Part II of Calvin's Calvinism, entitled "A Defence of the Secret Providence of God" by John Calvin, translated by Henry Cole, page 277.

First, we should have the whole quotation:

Since no one but he who is drawn by the secret influence of the Spirit can approach unto God, how is it that God does not draw all men indiscriminately to himself, if he really "willeth all men to be saved" (in the common meaning of the expression)?

Look at the emphasized part of that sentence. Calvin is speaking here of a particular conception of God's will, i.e., the conception of his opponent (who misrepresented Calvin's view as akin to fatalism and appears to have held some form of absolute universalism).

The kind of will that Calvin opposed here was an utterly equal will, such as might result in all men hearing the gospel and all men being the objects of the effectual work of the Spirit. He certainly does oppose that view of God's willing all men to be saved. But Calvin does not, in opposing this view of God's will, thereby oppose any and every view of God's willing all men to be saved. Consider this quote from the same context:

But how, and in what sense it is, that God willeth all men to be saved is a matter not here to be inquisitively discussed.

Secret Providence, page 277. This suggests that there is some sense, in Calvin's mind, in which God does indeed will that all men should be saved. For example, he does say elsewhere (in his commentary on 1Timothy 2:4) that God wishes that all men should hear the gospel. And in an earlier place in Secret Providence he says, "in as far as God 'willeth that all should come unto repentance,' in so far He willeth that no one should perish...." (page 276). And "Nay, if God Himself, who exhorts all men to repentance by His voice.... (page 277). This concept appears in many other places throughout Calvin's body of work.

This concept is tempered, to be sure, by Calvin's strong predestinarianism; but it is equally true that Calvin's predestinarianism is tempered by his view of God's will that all men be saved. Calvin often represents God to us as an indulgent and loving Father, who pleads for the salvation of all men.

The point here is that we have to understand Calvin's view of "God wills", in this passage. It is never wise to blindly latch on to a quote in the hopes that it will comfort us when we run into a difficulty in reading Calvin.

My son's recital at BJU music camp

Well, here it is, as promised. I'm very proud of Aaron, as you can imagine. The performance is not his best (he makes a couple of unfortunate mistakes right at the end of the piece), but it is certainly his bravest (he was performing in front of an audience of very talented teenage musicians). Even with the mistakes, it is still glorious music. The piece is Alexander Scriabin's Etude in D-sharp minor, Op. 8, No. 12, "Patetico." Enjoy!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Pecuniary vs. Judicial Debt

In one of the comments, Seth asked the following question:

Here is my law question. As an attorney:

How would you define pecuniary vs judicial debt payments?

Money or jail?

Good question. In very broad terms, the difference is between payment in money or in kind (e.g., barter) as opposed to payment in the person of the debtor himself (e.g., imprisonment, penal servitude, stripes, or death).

The best way to think of the difference Seth refers to is not the difference between pecuniary and judicial debt but between pecuniary and penal (think penalty) debt.

Most pecuniary debts arise from contracts and normal civil transactions. But we're thinking of sin and of our debt as the penalty for our crime. So we should think of analogies arising out of criminal law, not the law of contracts. Under criminal law, a pecuniary debt might arise from certain violations and low-level misdemeanors where the judge is required or permitted to impose a fine as a penalty.

Let's imagine that you get a traffic ticket for speeding, and the judge imposes a monetary fine. You now owe a pecuniary debt. Let's imagine that you don't have the money but your brother does. He is able and permitted to pay the fine. When he pays the fine, your debt to society is discharged.

Some people see Christ's work on our behalf as similar to the brother paying the fine. And this analogy works to a certain extent. He has paid our debt on our behalf.

But let's imagine that instead of a traffic violation, we have committed a more serious crime that requires incarceration. Your brother can no longer pay. The only person who can pay this debt is you. You must do the time, not your brother.

Christ's work compared to payment

Our debt to God is not of the sort that can be paid off like paying a fine, the debt we owe to God is owed in our persons. We must ourselves do the time.

And yet God has offered to substitute Christ's sacrifice as our punishment. This has no analogy in human law. Civilized society does not permit a mother to take the chair for her son or the brother to do the 30 years for the brother.

This unique combination — a debt owed in our persons paid vicariously by Christ — is the reason why analogies fail. Christ has not paid a certain amount for so many sins. His blood is not like a quantity of money. His suffering is not a pain-for-pain equivalent for the suffering due to us. The gracious arrangement of the gospel is unique and without an exact human parallel.

The trouble with certain views of the atonement is that they fail to recognize the unique nature of this transaction. The famous double-jeopardy argument, for example, works only if one sees Christ's suffering as a payment (like a monetary payment) for the debt (like a sum of money due) of the elect.

All analogies limp. Deductive arguments based on analogies should always be viewed with suspicion.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

My "to do" list for Controversial Calvinism

Just to let you who are interested know what I am working on (and that I AM working), I wanted to show you some of the projects I'm working on for the blog.

By popular demand, I am working on an essay that combines my thoughts on the Heshusius question into one article. I will make a blog entry with a link to a pdf article for your reading pleasure. The high Calvinists have badly misinterpreted that Heshusius quote, and this article will have all my objections in one place.

I also plan to continue my critique of Roger Nicole's article on Calvin's view of the atonement. I want to make this a thorough critique, hopefully with links to good source material. This will probably take me the next year or so -- it will be small, digestible bites, though. All very interesting.

In the immediate future (this week) I plan to answer the challenge regarding Calvin's view of 1Timothy 2:4 posted in a comment to my universal grace blog post. Look for that soon.

Completely unrelated to theology, I also hope to have a video of my son's performance at the Bob Jones University music camp, just concluded. Youtube is a beautiful thing. (Who is that little kid playing Scriabin?) :-)

Contend Earnestly

Seth McBee has this really cool blog, entitled Contend Earnestly

Seth recently added me to his blogroll, and I thought I would reciprocate. Check out Seth's blog. (And thank you, Seth!)

Friday, July 20, 2007

More on "many" vs. "all" in Calvin

In a recent blog article, I commented on Calvin's statement regarding Isaiah 53:12, that "'many' sometimes denotes 'all.'" This sentiment is quite opposite of the modern Calvinistic party line, which generally insists that "many" does not mean "all."

The consequences of this line of thinking are significant. If "many" sometimes means "all," not only does limited atonement lose one of its supports, the number of problem passages increases. If we take Calvin's view on Isaiah 53:12, for example, the verse turns from an argument for limited atonement to an argument against limited atonement.

(Caveat: when I speak of "limited atonement," I mean the kind generally held. I believe in limited atonement as defined by R. L. Dabney and unlimited atonement as defined by W. G. T. Shedd. Get a handle on that distinction and you have made a giant step toward understanding moderate Calvinism.)

Is it really that bad?

Maybe it isn't really so bad for high Calvinism. We can understand Calvin slipping up in one place or another. It's not like this is a recurring theme in Calvin's writings ... is it?

Unfortunately for high Calvinism, it is a recurring theme. Here are several passages containing the same idea.

Sermon on Isaiah 52:12

That, then, is how our Lord Jesus bore the sins and iniquities of many. But in fact, this word "many" is often as good as equivalent to "all". And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world. For it is not speaking of three or four when it says: "For God so loved the world, that he spared not His only Son." But yet we must notice that the Evangelist adds in this passage: "That whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but obtain eternal life." Our Lord Jesus suffered for all, and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation through him. Unbelievers who turn away from Him and who deprive themselves of him by their malice are today doubly culpable. For how will they excuse their ingratitude in not receiving the blessing in which the could share by faith?

Calvin, Sermons on Isaiah's Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, 52:12, p., 140-1.

Commentary on Matthew 20:28

"And to give his life a ransom for many." Christ mentioned his death, as we have said, in order to withdraw his disciples from the foolish imagination of an earthly kingdom. But it is a just and appropriate statement of its power and results, when he declares that his life is the price of our redemption; whence it follows, that we obtain an undeserved reconciliation with God, the price of which is to be found nowhere else than in the death of Christ. Wherefore, this single word overturns all the idle talk of the Papists about their abominable satisfactions. Again, while Christ has purchased us by his death to be his property, this submission, of which he speaks, is so far from diminishing his boundless glory, that it greatly increases its splendor. The word "many" (pollon) is not put definitely for a fixed number, but for a large number; for he contrasts himself with all others. And in this sense it is used in Romans 5:15, where Paul does not speak of any part of men, but embraces the whole human race.

Commentary on Mark 14:24

"Which is shed for many." By the word "many" he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke--Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated.

Commentary on Hebrews 9:28

"To bear," or, "take away sins", is to free from guilt by his satisfaction those who have sinned. He says the sins of many, that is, of all, as in Romans 5:15. It is yet certain that not all receive benefit from the death of Christ; but this happens, because their unbelief prevents them. At the same time this question is not to be discussed here, for the Apostle is not speaking of the few or of the many to whom the death of Christ may be available; but he simply means that he died for others and not for himself; and therefore he opposes many to one.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Answer to a High Critic

One of my recent articles drew criticism of a rather general sort from "anonymous." The criticism warrants a separate blog entry because it encapsulates the criticisms I've received over the last year-and-a-half, and I'd like to make a more prominent response to these criticisms. So here we go, paragraph by paragraph. Anonymous starts with this:

It seems to me that the Calvinists you refer to have understood Calvin correctly, contrary to your friend David. I have read a number of similar arguments that attempt to paint Calvin in Amyraldian terms, including some of those by Moses Amyraut.

Most recently I have criticized Nicole and Cunningham. What about their reasoning makes you agree with them? If you believe Calvin emphatically repudiated universal love or grace, I would like to see it cited so we can look at it. It is interesting and no doubt true that you have read many authorities; but that doesn't help the rest of us. We ought to discuss the authorities, not just protest our erudition.

I guess I've never really understood what the claim that Christ died for all men universally distributive gets you -- even if, for the sake of argument, this is in fact Calvin's view?

Well, I'll tell you what it gets me: first, I don't have to wiggle the plain words of the Bible. I don't have to pretend that John 3:16 refers to the world of the elect. Second, I can feel free to tell unbelievers that there is a savior for them, because Christ died to save them. Third, it realigns (though I did not seek this realignment) my view of God's nature. Whether one sees this as a benefit or not, it is a consequence. The first two consequences I feel as an immense relief. Others who have adopted a more moderate view of Calvinism have reported sharing this same sense of relief. (I encourage those of you who have felt this relief to post a comment sharing this with other readers. Also let us know if you see other positive benefits from adopting a more moderate Calvinistic view.)

If you're an Amyraldian of some sort, and not an out and out Arminian, you would still maintain that God grants the elect the ability and the necessary grace to believe, yes?

I am neither Amyraldian nor Arminian. (As far as I can tell, Amyraut's view of the order of the decrees is as messed up as the others.) It is interesting that you would bring up Amyraut. Why bring him up? I have cited Calvin as my primary authority on universalism. Ignore Amyraut; explain Calvin if you can.

As to your challenge, I agree. God does grant the elect the ability and grace to believe.

In which case Christ's death is useless for some and effectual for others and you're right back affirming Christ's death, at least as far as its efficacy, is only an actual benefit for the "many" and not "all."

Useless? That has always struck me as an odd argument. How dare we (good presuppositionalists that we seem to be) stand as arbiters of the usefulness (of all things) of Christ's work? (Presuppositionalism-cum-pragmatism!) If God deems it good and proper (for whatever reason) to expiate the sins of all, then we dare not say that to believe God is to believe in futility.

But, in fact, Calvin has commented many times on the sin of unbelief rendering Christ's work useless. (Note that Calvin criticizes the unbeliever, not Christ's work!) Calvin said:

We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us.

Institutes 3.1.1

As far as the efficacy of Christ's death to eternal salvation, yes, I agree it is true; Christ's work is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect. That this is the only actual benefit, I am inclined to deny. But questions of benefit are quite irrelevant to the exegetical questions, which are far more pressing.

The only thing a universal atonement would seem to accomplish is to place Christ's life and cross work at odds with the will of the Father and that can never be. (Assuming you would agree that the Father has chosen those who will receive the ability and grace to believe).

Christ's work for all men is completely in keeping with the work of the Holy Trinity, as I have previously explained.

To put it another way, if Christ's death propitiated the wrath of the God on account of sin for all, then why aren't all saved? If you say salvation is given on the condition of faith, well we know that God alone can give the grace to believe and that He extends that grace to the elect alone.

Why aren't all saved? To quote Calvin, "faith is not common to all." And, as you say, God does not grant that all men should repent. If you see that as a problem for my position, I would like to know how.

Therefore, it would follow that Christ's death didn't actually propitiate the wrath of God for any sin in necessarily, but rather faith makes Christ's cross work complete. In which case faith saves and you're back, at least in practical terms, with the Arminian.

No, I'm afraid that does not follow. God's wrath could be propitiated while men reject his beneficence. As far as your argument that my view makes faith into a work, you should know that Calvinists see faith as an instrumental cause, not the meritorious cause of our justification. If that makes me a practical Arminian, then at least I have plenty of good company. But it doesn't.

It seems to me the universalism of Amyraldianism is incoherent and self-refuting. Again, I fail to see any benefit or advantage in this view of the atonement and the decree?

Whatever the universalism of Amyraut may be, I'm writing about the universalism of Calvin. Maybe you see Calvin as incoherent and self-refuting. That would be interesting.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Calvin Extolling Universal Grace

Does Calvin see God as extending grace to all men without exception? Roger Nicole (and William Cunningham, whom Nicole cited with approval,) have said that Calvin emphatically repudiated such a view of God's grace, though neither of these authorities gave evidence of such a repudiation. My previous blog post was devoted to giving evidence from Calvin debunking Nicole's and Cunningham's idea. This article will contain a few more examples along the same line.

God's grace spread out everywhere

Here is a quote from Calvin's Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 91, 33:1-3, p., 1188-9.

The meaning of Moses is then easy enough, namely that albeit God loves all people, yet that his Saints are in his charge or protection, yea even those whom he has chosen. Unless a man will refer these words, "the People", to the twelve tribes: but that were hard and constrained. Moses then does here compare all men and all the Nations of the earth with the lineage of Abraham which God had chosen: as if he should say, that God's grace is spread out everywhere, as we ourselves see, and as the Scripture also witnesses in other places. And not only men are partakers of this goodness of God, and are fed and maintained by his liberality: but he does also show himself bountiful even to brute beasts. Even thither does his mercy extend according to this saying of the Psalm, Who makes the fields and mountains to bring forth grass for the feeding of cattle, but God who has a care of them? Seeing that GOD vouchsafes to have so merciful regard of the beasts which he has created, as to given them food; it is more to be thought that he will be a foster father to men, whom he has made and shaped after his own image, which approaches nearer unto him, and which have a thing far excelling above all other creatures: God then does love all people.

"God's grace," says Calvin, "is spread out everywhere." There can be no question that this refers to every individual man, for Calvin compares and contrasts God's love for men with that for beasts on the one hand and with that for His saints on the other hand.

Grace profaned by hypocrites in the church

In this next quote, we have grace extended to hypocrites who eventually efface (i.e. erase or undo) the grace given to them.

For, since the fall of Adam had brought disgrace upon all his posterity, God restores those, whom He separates as His own, so that their condition may be better than that of all other nations. At the same time it must be remarked, that this grace of renewal is effaced in many who have afterwards profaned it. Consequently the Church is called God's work and creation, in two senses, i.e., generally with respect to its outward calling, and specially with respect to spiritual regeneration, as far as regards the elect; for the covenant of grace is common to hypocrites and true believers. On this ground all whom God gathers into His Church, are indiscriminately said to be renewed and regenerated: but the internal renovation belongs to believers only; whom Paul, therefore, calls God's "workmanship, created unto good works, which God hath prepared, etc." (Ephesians 2:10.).

Calvin, Commentary on Deuteronomy 32:6.

Is Calvin's idea of grace given by God to those who efface and profane that grace consonant with Cunningham's and Nicole's idea that Calvin emphatically repudiated universal grace and love? The reader will decide for himself, but it is obvious to me that Cunningham was — and Nicole is — wrong. One can, of course, say that grace is not universal though it extends to hypocrites in the church. But which position does that favor?

Remember that Nicole used the alleged emphatic repudiation to bolster the idea that Calvin taught particularism in the atonement. But in this quote we see Calvin distinctly teaching that God's grace extends to those who ultimately reject it. Nicole's argument goes bad as being against the facts (the fact is that Calvin did not emphatically repudiate universal grace and love) and as leading to an unjust conclusion. Even if Calvin did in some place or another repudiate universal grace, it obviously does not lead Calvin to reject the idea of grace extended to those who ultimately reject that grace.

This next quote, again, does not prove universal grace. But it does prove Calvin's view of God's grace to some of the non-elect, which amounts to nearly the same thing in our argument against Nicole and Cunningham.

The Spirit of grace. He calls it the Spirit of grace from the effects produced; for it is by the Spirit and through his influence that we receive the grace offered to us in Christ. For he it is who enlightens our minds by faith, who seals the adoption of God on our hearts, who regenerates us unto newness of life, who grafts us into the body of Christ, that he may live in us and we in him. He is therefore rightly called the Spirit of grace, by whom Christ becomes ours with all his blessings. But to do despite to him, or to treat him with scorn, by whom we are endowed with so many benefits, is an impiety extremely wicked. Hence learn that all who willfully render useless his grace, by which they had been favored, act disdainfully towards the Spirit of God.

Universal affection implying desire for the salvation of all

Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews 10:29. Here's another, showing God's love for all men as their creator. But this is no mere admiration of the work of one's hands — as if God, as a workman, admired what He had made though it had gone bad and must be ultimately destroyed. No. Since, Calvin says, we are men, and thus the work of God's hands, our salvation must be precious to him.

When, therefore, God pronounces that all souls are his own, he does not merely claim sovereignty and power, but he rather shows that he is affected with fatherly love towards the whole human race since he created and formed it; for, if a workman loves his work because he recognizes in it the fruits of his industry, so, when God has manifested his power and goodness in the formation of men, he must certainly embrace them with affection. True, indeed, we are abominable in God's sight, through being corrupted by original sin, as it is elsewhere said, (Psalm 14:1, 2;) but inasmuch as we are men, we must be dear to God, and our salvation must be precious in his sight. We now see what kind of refutation this is: all souls are mine, says he: I have formed all, and am the creator of all, and so I am affected with fatherly love towards all, and they shall rather feel my clemency, from the least to the greatest, than experience too much rigor and severity.

From Calvin's Commentary on Ezekiel 18:4.

There is a lot more in Calvin along this line. But there is enough here and in previous blog entries and comments to refute Cunningham's and Nicole's idea that Calvin emphatically repudiated the idea of universal love or grace. Rather than repudiating, he extolled it.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The love of God for all men in Calvin's writings

I have begun a series of critiques of Roger Nicole's 1985 article, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. Dr. Nicole's article has been published online at A Puritan's Mind.

In a previous article, I criticized Nicole and an authority he cited, Principal William Cunningham, as having failed to substantiate the claim that Calvin emphatically repudiated "God's universal grace or love to all men, as implying some desire or intention of saving them all, and some provision directed to that object...." (See W. Cunningham, "Calvin and Beza," British and Foreign Evangelical Review 10 (1861) 641-702. Reprinted in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Clark, 1862) 398-402 at 398, 399.)

Cunningham asserted a position without proof — it needed no proof, he said — and so all one need do is deny it, and his assertion is defeated. But it might be useful, however unnecessary, to bring forward some proof to answer Cunningham's (and Nicole's) bare assertion.

To falsify Cunningham and Nicole's claim, one must produce proof from Calvin's writings of any of these things:

  • God's universal grace as implying some desire to save them all;
  • God's universal grace as implying some intention to save them all;
  • God's love to all men as implying some desire to save them all;
  • or God's love to all men as implying some intention to save them all.

Note that Cunningham does not speak of God's "desire" or "intention" as necessarily resulting in the salvation of all men, only that there be some desire or intention. Along with any one of these four desires or intentions, there must also be proof of some provision to the end specified. If we find these things in Calvin, Cunningham's claim is falsified.

Enough has been said already by Tony in his comments to a previous post to falsify Cunningham's and Nicole's claims. But let's add some more.

From Calvin's sermon on Deuteronomy 4:36-37, we get a comment on John 3:16:

It is true that Saint John says generally, that he loved the world. And why? For Jesus Christ offers himself generally to all men without exception to be their redeemer. It is said afterward in the covenant, that God loved the world when he sent his only son: but he loved us, us (I say) which have been taught by his Gospel, because he gathered us to him. And the faithful that are enlightened by the holy Ghost, have yet a third use of God's love, in that he reveals himself more familiarly to them, and seals up his fatherly adoption by his holy Spirit, and engraves it upon their hearts. Now then, let us in all cases learn to know this love of God, & when we be once come to it, let us go no further.

Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon, 28, 4:36-37, p., 167. Here we have evidence of some love of God extended to all men without exception. Along with this love is the offer of Jesus Christ to be their redeemer. Surely this must meet Cunningham's condition of "some provision to the end specified."

The next quote comes from Calvin's commentary on Lamentations 3:33:

There is, as I have said, an impropriety in the expression, but it is enough to know, that God derives no pleasure from the miseries of men, as profane men say, who utter such blasphemies as these, that we are like balls with which God plays, and that we are exposed to many evils, because God wishes to have as it were, a pleasant and delectable spectacle in looking on the innumerable afflictions, and at length on the death of men.

That such thoughts, then, might not tempt us to unbelief, the Prophet here puts a check on us, and declares that God does not afflict from his heart, that is, willingly, as though he delighted in the evils of men, as a judge, who, when he ascends his throne and condemns the guilty to death, does not do this from his heart, because he wishes all to be innocent, and thus to have a reason for acquitting them; but. yet he willingly condemns the guilty, because this is his duty. So also God, when he adopts severity towards men, he indeed does so willingly, because he is the judge of the world; but he does not do so from the heart, because he wishes all to be innocent — for far away from him is all fierceness and cruelty; and as he regards men with paternal love, so also he would have them to be saved, were they not as it were by force to drive him to rigor.

Here we have in Calvin the declaration of God's love for all men along with the wish that men be innocent. Along with this, Calvin says, "so also he would have them to be saved...." Here we have the expression of God's love, along with an intention, along with the provision of salvation, which He desires for all.

This next one doesn't prove universal grace, but it does shed light on the question, for it does show some grace to some (at least) of the reprobate. Here is Calvin from the Institutes 3.2.11:

Still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace; but that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition. When he shows himself propitious to them, it is not as if he had truly rescued them from death, and taken them under his protection. He only gives them a manifestation of his present mercy. In the elect alone he implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end. Thus we dispose of the objection, that if God truly displays his grace, it must endure for ever. There is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent.

And this from Institutes 3.2.12

In short, as by the revolt of the first man, the image of God could be effaced from his mind and soul, so there is nothing strange in His shedding some rays of grace on the reprobate, and afterwards allowing these to be extinguished. There is nothing to prevent His giving some a slight knowledge of his Gospel, and imbuing others thoroughly. Meanwhile, we must remember that however feeble and slender the faith of the elect may be, yet as the Spirit of God is to them a sure earnest and seal of their adoption, the impression once engraven can never be effaced from their hearts, whereas the light which glimmers in the reprobate is afterwards quenched. Nor can it be said that the Spirit therefore deceives, because he does not quicken the seed which lies in their hearts so as to make it ever remain incorruptible as in the elect. I go farther: seeing it is evident, from the doctrine of Scripture and from daily experience, that the reprobate are occasionally impressed with a sense of divine grace, some desire of mutual love must necessarily be excited in their hearts. Thus for a time a pious affection prevailed in Saul, disposing him to love God. Knowing that he was treated with paternal kindness, he was in some degree attracted by it. But as the reprobate have no rooted conviction of the paternal love of God, so they do not in return yield the love of sons, but are led by a kind of mercenary affection.

In these quotations, we have material from Calvin's sermons, his commentaries, and the Institutes, all of which show the love and grace of God to all men or, in the last two cases, to some (at least) of the reprobate. Along with this non-exclusive love and grace we have the provision of Christ as a redeemer, salvation, and God's revelation. Cunningham's and Nicole's claim has been falsified.

I'll give a few more of these quotes in my next blog post.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Christ bore the sin of many — or of all?

The reformed view of "the sin of many."

That wording, "the sin of many" can be found in Isaiah 53:12:

Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Often the defender of Calvinistic soteriology will point to this verse and others like it, and say, "See? Christ bore the sins of many, not of all." "Many is not all," they will say. The "many" for the reformed theologian is often equivalent to "the elect," or "his people," or other such constructions. The Puritan theologian John Flavel interpreted the "many" of Isaiah 53:12 as "the elect." I take the following quotation from his sermon on the covenant of redemption. Flavel says:

In this verse we have, 1. His work. * * * His work, which was indeed a hard work, to pour out his soul unto death, aggravated by the companions, with whom, being numbered with transgressors; the capacity in which, bearing all the sins of the elect, "he bare the sins of many"....

So Flavel equates bearing the sins of many with bearing the sins of the elect. About what we'd expect.

For Calvin, many sometimes means all

But John Calvin does not do what Flavel and the rest of the reformed community has done. Quite to the contrary, Calvin here equates bearing the sins of many with bearing the sins of all. My friend David has used a portion of Calvin's comment on this verse for his signature line in his emails:

I approve of the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because on him was laid the guilt of the whole world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that "many" sometimes denotes "all."

The irony of this is piquant. Whereas most who call themselves Calvinists often read "all" as "many," Calvin, in this important verse, reads "many" as "all".

Odd hermeneutical rules and how to stop them

But there is a way out for the Calvinist. Those who are willing to impose odd hermeneutical rules in their quest to conform Calvin to their own image might say that in reading Calvin, the word "all" must never refer to all individual men; it must always refer to "all classes of men." "All" means "all men generally," by which they mean "all kinds" or "all sorts" — by which they mean some of all kinds or sorts — by which they mean not all. ( It is that easy to turn a positive statement into a negative one. It just requires the will to believe.)

It would certainly be an odd exegetical rule that universally changes "all" to "not all". But in this case — and this is the main point of this article — we have some assistance from the great man himself.

All means every one

Here is a little additional context for Calvin's quote, taken from his comment to Isaiah 53:12:

I have followed the ordinary interpretation, that "he bore the sin of many," though we might without impropriety consider the Hebrew word [Hebrew omitted - slc] (rabbim,) to denote "Great and Noble." And thus the contrast would be more complete, that Christ, while "he was ranked among transgressors," became surety for every one of the most excellent of the earth, and suffered in the room of those who hold the highest rank in the world. I leave this to the judgment of my readers. Yet I approve of the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because on him was laid the guilt of the whole world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that "many" sometimes denotes "all."

Exclamation point!

Consider what this means for our interpretation of Calvin. In Isaiah 53:12, Calvin says that "many" means "all." And even if the word "many" be translated "great and noble," Calvin says that Christ is surety for every one of them — every one of the great and noble. Thus we have — by a simple, straightforward reading — determined that all in Calvin's comment to Isaiah 53:12 does not mean all classes, or all sorts, or all kinds; it means all individuals.

This has strong implications for our hermeneutics, especially against those who would impose that odd rule referred to above. It also has implications for our reading of Calvin's comment to 1Timothy 2:4, where he admittedly refers the passage to princes and rulers. Princes and rulers, yes — every one of them.

May I say exclamation point again?

Exclamation point!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Individuals or Classes? Calvin on 1Timothy 2:4-6

I offer this article as a supplement to the first article critiquing Roger Nicole's article entitled, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. (Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 197-225). I wish to address a point about Calvin's comment on 1Timothy 2:4 that may seem to some readers to have been omitted.

Classes of men vs. individuals in 1Timothy 2:4

In his comment to that verse, Calvin said, "God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception." In my previous blog post, I said that Calvin's statement shows his view that God has a universal love for mankind. Though I believe this to be true, there is a problem. In his comment to this verse, Calvin also said the following:

Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. "If God" say they, "wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition." They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men; although even then we should not have wanted the means of replying to their argument; for, although the will of God ought not to be judged from his secret decrees, when he reveals them to us by outward signs, yet it does not therefore follow that he has not determined with himself what he intends to do as to every individual man.

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations.

This is certainly problematic for my position. If Calvin is not speaking here of individual men, but only of man as a class (as seems apparent from the quoted paragraphs), then there is no reason to see a universal love of God in this comment. According to this view of things, God may desire all nations (whether Jew or gentile) and all ranks of men (whether peasants or kings, male or female, bond or free) to hear the gospel call; but this may not mean that God desires all individuals to hear the gospel call.

Classes vs. individuals in Calvin's comment to 1Timothy 2:5

The matter becomes even more difficult for my position from a statement Calvin makes in his comment to the following verse:

And one Mediator between God and men This clause is of a similar import with the former; for, as there is one God, the Creator and Father of all, so he says that there is but one Mediator, through whom we have access to the Father; and that this Mediator was given, not only to one nation, or to a small number of persons of some particular rank, but to all; because the fruit of the sacrifice, by which he made atonement for sins, extends to all. More especially because a large portion of the world was at that time alienated from God, he expressly mentions the Mediator, through whom they that were afar off now approach.

The universal term all must always be referred to classes of men, and not to persons; as if he had said, that not only Jews, but Gentiles also, not only persons of humble rank, but princes also, were redeemed by the death of Christ. Since, therefore, he wishes the benefit of his death to be common to all, an insult is offered to him by those who, by their opinion, shut out any person from the hope of salvation.

Regarding these paragraphs from Calvin's comment to 1Timothy 2:5, Nicole says this:

It is not fair to Calvin to separate the last sentence from the remainder of the paragraph and to pretend on that basis that he advocates a universal atonement.

Nicole at 213. Agreed, provided we keep two points in mind. First, one might argue universal atonement from Calvin on other bases and from other passages. Second, though it may be unfair to separate one sentence from another in a paragraph, it would be equally unfair to pretend that the first sentence of this paragraph must govern all of Calvin's work as a sort of hermeneutical rule (viz., the word "all" in Calvin must always refer to all classes of men, never to all individuals. I do not suggest that Nicole has made such a rule).

Calvin often speaks of all the individuals of humanity. The interpretation of universalistic passages of this sort must not be burdened by unreasonable and woodenly applied maxims. Thus though this particular passage may be equivocal because of the presence of the "classes" vs. "individuals" comment, that should not unduly restrict our interpretation of other passages, though we should admit the possibility of such a particularistic interpretation where warranted.

Does God desire that the gospel be proclaimed to all individuals?

The universalistic interpretation of Calvin that I am most concerned with in the 1Timothy 2:4-6 context is this:

... God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation.

Calvin, Comment to 1Timothy 2:4. Are we warranted in saying that the gospel call should be given to all individuals indiscriminately, and that thereby God invites all equally to partake of salvation? Does this truly represent a universalistic wish, will, or desire in God as I claimed in my previous essay? On this point Nicole — and I agree with him — says this:

To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language. We furthermore believe that Calvin was right in line with Scripture, and that those who would restrict the call to the elect are mistaken.

Nicole at 213. This suggests a positive answer to our question. It does at least answer the question regarding the divine command: the gospel should be preached to all individuals without exception. I would add that this also means that —for Calvin, at least— God desires for all men to hear the gospel.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Calvin vs. Cunningham & Nicole

Roger Nicole wrote an article published in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1985 entitled, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. Dr. Nicole's article has been published online at A Puritan's Mind, and I thank Dr. McMahon (and Dr. Nicole) for permission to quote from and link to that article.

I plan to critique the article at some length. Calvinists often cite Dr. Nicole as authority for the proposition that Calvin taught limited atonement, when it appears that nothing could be further from the truth. The corpus of Calvin's work abounds with evidence to the contrary. Dr. Nicole's arguments need to be examined and answered. I plan to proceed through Dr. Nicole's article paragraph by paragraph. I won't write about every paragraph, but I will highlight the arguments and attempt to answer them. The material that is purely bibliographic I will generally skip over unless there is a logical argument buried in it. For example, I may answer some of Dr. Nicole's critricisms of Kendall.

Early in the article, Dr. Nicole cites William Cunningham as one of the 19th-century defenders of the Calvin taught limited atonement position, and as perhaps the first to cite the Heshusius tract as proof of that position. (I have answered the alleged proof from Heshusius at some length in previous blog posts.) I begin my critique of Nicole's article with a review of Cunningham's arguments and Nicole's citation of them.

Did Calvin emphatically repudiate a universal saving will in God?

According to Dr. Nicole, Cunningham proved that Calvin did not teach unlimited atonement by two lines of reasoning.

William Cunningham's article, as is usual with this author, is a very solid and searching study. In addition to discussing the important quotation of Calvin noted above, Cunningham reasoned that Calvin's emphatic repudiation of a universal saving will and endorsement of election and reprobation as well as his particularistic interpretation of passages invariably appealed to by hypothetical universalists (1 Tim 2:4; 1 John 2:2) reflect a line of thought in which particular rather than universal redemption finds a fitting place.

Nicole's footnote 15 cites W. Cunningham, "Calvin and Beza," British and Foreign Evangelical Review 10 (1861) 641-702. Reprinted in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Clark, 1862) 398-402.

The first line of proof is Calvin's so-called "emphatic repudiation of a universal saving will." It always surprises me to see it alleged that Calvin denied a universal saving will. It is surprising because — as far as I can tell — he never denied it, and often asserted it. Where can this "emphatic repudiation" be found? If Calvin did emphatically repudiate the idea, then either Dr. Nicole or his cited authority should have provided the proof. Alas, neither Nicole nor Cunningham provide any quotations, information, or argument. Here's what Cunningham says on the matter:

That Calvin denied the doctrine of God's universal grace or love to all men, as implying some desire or intention of saving them all, and some provision directed to that object, is too evident to any one who has read his writings, to admit of doubt or to require proof.

* * *

[T]he fact of Calvin so explicitly denying the doctrine of God's universal grace or love to all men, affords a more direct and certain ground for the inference, that he did not hold the doctrine of universal atonement....

Cunningham, Reformers, 398, 399. Cunningham's fallacy is petitio principii, or simply begging the question. It was Cunningham's duty to provide evidence of his contention, but he failed — refused — to provide it. What is so ironic about Cunningham's evasion is that he himself unwittingly provides proof to the contrary not two pages later in his article, where he quotes Calvin's view on 1Timothy 2:4. Here it is, in the Latin Cunningham used:

Apostolus simpliciter intelligit nullum mundi vel populum vel ordinem a salute excludi, quia omnibus sine exceptione evangelium proponi Deus velit.

Cunningham, 400. Or, in English, "the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception." Omnibus sine exceptionie — "all without exception." Is this not precisely the universalistic wish — "desire or intention" — that Cunningham denied is present in Calvin's thought? In fact, it is very easy to find God's universal love or grace taught in Calvin's work. Cunningham's failure to bring forward some solid evidence to the contrary is not surprising.

Nicole cannot escape censure here as well. He ought to have produced evidence of the alleged emphatic denial —even though Cunningham did not — if he thought it existed. The rote and uncritical citation of old authorities can lead to a chain of error that extends as far as human credulity. Authority X says "black is white." Authority Y quotes authority X. Authority Z, who respects Authority Y immensely, quotes him as saying that Authority X has proved "black is white." Before you know it, a whole cult builds up based on the authority of well-respected men.

This sort of thing used to occur frequently in the world of chess. Chess literature abounded with ideas based on authority quoting authority, even though the original writer may have been utterly wrong. The advent of strong chess-playing computer programs, available to any rank amateur for a few dollars, has reduced the incidence of this sort of thing. The merest beginner can fire up his computer and actually check whether the world-renowned authority is correct in his analysis.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in historical theology. The old documents are becoming available to the dummies on the internet. We are checking.

To disprove Nicole's and Cunningham's contention, one need only look to the obvious commentary on John 3:16, where Calvin waxed eloquent on the love of God shown to the whole world in the advent of Christ. I quote only a small part:

And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.

Calvin, Commentary on John 3:16

Do particularistic interpretations of 1Timothy 2:4 and 1John 2:2 mean that all Calvin's interpretations must be particularistic?

The second argument made by Cunningham and echoed by Nicole is this: Calvin's particularistic interpretations of 1Timothy 2:4 and 1John 2:2 "reflect a line of thought in which particular rather than universal redemption finds a fitting place." (Nicole, at 201.)

On this second argument, Cunningham says the following:

The other consideration to which we referred, as affording some positive evidence, though not direct and explicit, that Calvin did not hold the doctrine of a universal atonement, is this, — that he has interpreted some of the principal texts on which the advocates of that doctrine rest it, in such a way as to deprive them of all capacity of serving the purpose to which its supporters commonly apply them. If this position can be established, it will furnish something more than a presumption, and will almost amount to a proof, that he did not hold the doctrine in question.

The flimsiness of this slip-shod argument is shocking. That Calvin held an interpretation of some passages (Cunningham cites only the two passages and Nicole provides nothing further) that is consistent with limited atonement is no proof whatsoever that Calvin held limited atonement or denied unlimited atonement.

First, it does not prove that Calvin held limited atonement, as Cunningham admits. He says, "Let it be observed, that our object is not to show, that we are warranted in adducing the authority of the great name of Calvin as a positive testimony in favour of the doctrine of particular redemption, — of a limited atonement...." (Cunningham at 400.)

And if Calvin's interpretation of these passages is consistent with limited atonement, it does not prove that his interpretation is inconsistent with unlimited atonement.

In fact, Calvin's interpretation of these passages is quite consistent with and often cited in favor of universalistic aspects of Christ's work. Calvin's comment on 1John 2:2 is often cited to show that Calvin approved of the formula sufficient for all, efficient for the elect. The comment on 1Timothy 2:4 contains the idea that God desires that the gospel be preached to all without exception.

Despite this obvious truth, Cunningham makes the bold claim that Calvin's position on those two passages "will almost amount to a proof, that he did not hold the doctrine in question." Nicole, following Cunningham, says that Calvin's interpretation of these passages "reflect a line of thought in which particular rather than universal redemption finds a place." (One could note the subtle shift of thought. Whereas Cunningham said that this line of reasoning shows that Calvin did not hold unlimited atonement, Nicole says that the line of reasoning reflects particularism rather than universalism — a significantly different idea, logically.)

A final point must be mentioned: if Calvin interpreted the two passages in a way suited to particularistic views, it does not mean that he had an agenda to interpret all such passages in that way. It may mean that for the sake of honesty he interpreted the passages in the way grammar, logic, and context demanded. If this be the case, must it necessarily follow that all such passages will be interpreted in the same way? For Calvin this is obviously not the case.

While making these meager connections, neither Cunningham nor Nicole deal with the strongly universalistic statements in Calvin. What of, for example, Calvin's statement in his comment to Romans 5:18?

for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God's benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.

Calvin, Commentary on Romans 5:18

Cunningham's arguments are inadequate to his purpose, and Nicole's citation of Cunningham amounts to nothing more than an appeal to Cunningham's authority.

More to come

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Roger Nicole on Calvin and Limited Atonement

I have started a series of blog posts critiquing Roger Nicole's article on Calvin's view of the atonement. The article is: Roger Nicole, John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 197-225. You can find the article available online at A Puritan’s Mind.

If you wish to see a list of my articles critiquing Nicole, just click on this link.