Did Calvin teach Limited Atonement?
This is the central question of the "Calvin v. the Calvinists" dispute. Though this has been primarily the province of Calvin scholars and experts, it strikes me as well within the capacity of lay readers of Calvin. The Christian of ordinary intelligence can decide the question for himself. The question is fairly simple because of the paucity of evidence on one side of the question and the abundance of evidence on the other. The only significant question, in my view, is how this dispute could have been carried on for so long when the evidence speaks so powerfully for itself.
The answer to the question is that Calvin did not teach Limited Atonement — at least not the version of limited atonement that is popular in reformed circles today. This can be demonstrated fairly simply by looking at the evidence given in favor of the limited atonement side. The evidence is slim.
As an example of the modern reformed attitude toward the question, I'll use a James White "Dividing Line" program from July 10, 1999. White had as his guest a fellow-pastor from Phoenix, Pastor Jeff Niell. Niell has done some study on the Calvin v. the Calvinists question and has some definite opinions.
The question, as defined by White on this program, was stated by Norm Geisler in his book, Chosen but Free.
[Calvin] certainly denied Limited Atonement as they understand it. For Calvin the atonement is universal in extent and limited only in its application, namely to those who believe.
This impresses me as at least a roughly accurate statement of Calvin's theology of the atonement. (This was certainly the understanding of W.G.T. Shedd and R.L. Dabney.) According to White and Niell, the evidence is clear and unambiguous on the other side of the question — in favor of Calvin's having taught limited atonement. In the next several blog posts, I will deal with the main evidence given for Calvin's supposed affirmation of Limited Atonement.
What is the evidence?
The first category of evidence is the strong predestinarianism present throughout Calvin's writings. In White's interview, Niell used a selection of quotations from Calvin on subjects other than but related to the atonement. Niell rattles off several quotes from Calvin that affirm this strong predestinarianism. First, from Calvin's Commentary on John 17:2:
Jesus asks nothing but what is agreeable to the will of the Father. * * * Christ does not say that he has been made governor over the whole world in order to ... bestow life on all without distinction, but he limits this grace to those who have been given him.
Next, Niell uses two quotes quote from the Institutes in which Calvin proves the doctrine of predestination from the scriptures:
[t]he whole world does not belong to its creator except that grace rescues from God's curse and wrath and eternal death a limited number, who would otherwise perish.
* * *
this we must believe, when he declares that he knows whom he has chosen, he denotes in the human genus a particular species distinguished not by the quality of its virtues but by heavenly decree.
Institutes 3.22.7. And finally a quote from Institutes 3.22.10:
hence it is clear that the doctrine of salvation ... is falsely debased when presented as effectually profitable to all.
Though these quotations might seem impressive at first glance, none of them touch directly on the question of the extent of the atonement. The question in debate is not Calvin's view of election, rather it is Calvin's view of the intent and extent of the atonement. Thus the quotes are inapt. Niell's first quote, from John 17:2, speaks of Christ's rule, not of his atonement. (Even here there is a suggestion of the universality mixed with particularity, for Calvin says later in the same paragraph, "So then, the kingdom of Christ extends, no doubt, to all men; but it brings salvation to none but the elect....")
Niell's second and third quotations, both from Institutes 3.22.7, speak of a scriptural proof of the doctrine of predestination. This is not in dispute. And the final quote from Institutes 3.22.10 relates to Calvin's reconciliation of the universal call with particular grace. Again, this point is not in dispute. Though it is interesting that again Calvin shows the general call coinciding with the special intent of God to save the elect. The sentence following Niell's quotation is this: "For the present let it suffice to observe, that though the word of the gospel is addressed generally to all, yet the gift of faith is rare. "
One might be inclined to rescue Niell's argument by asserting that the elements of T.U.L.I.P. stand or fall together — that to deny one is to deny them all. If this were the case, then Calvin's strong predestinarianism necessarily implies limited atonement. But I have already shown that such is not the case.
Further, Calvin so often taught the universality of Christ's atonement in such strong language, that the "stands or falls together" argument becomes moot unless one wishes to press the complete irrationality of Calvin's system. Here, for example, is an excerpt from Calvin's comment on Romans 5:18:
He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; 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.
No lack of clarity there. And this is only one quote of many to this effect. Stay tuned; I'll show you more.