Thursday, April 05, 2007

Calvin's View of the Atonement - Part I

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.

Page 106.

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.


Anonymous said...

I like your insight. Your thinking is way beyond mine, to be sure.

Steve said...

Thanks MTB. I appreciate your kind words. I hasten to add that I don't deny limited atonement, but I have a slightly different view of it that (I hope) takes into account the broad statements in such scriptures as John 3:16, John 1:29, etc.


Ploughed Ground said...

The gospel is offered to all it is preached to. The Canons of Dordt 1618-19 make this very clear I include two articles from the caonoins:

Article 8: The Serious Call of the Gospel

Nevertheless, all who are called through the gospel are called seriously. For seriously and most genuinely God makes known in his Word what is pleasing to him: that those who are called should come to him. Seriously he also promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe.

Article 9: Human Responsibility for Rejecting the Gospel

The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life's cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits
Extrcts from Church Documents : . Thanks to CRTA.

Ieuan Sant

Steve said...

Thanks Ieuan. I was thinking of you the other day, hoping I'll one day be able to visit your fair environs and we can chat. :-)

ploughed ground said...

I enjoyed reading this blog Stevem hope you are doing well may God bless you and keep you.

MY Blog Steve:

If only we could help Hyper Calvinists rid themslevs of their hang ups and free them to love God's creation with passion and hunility. We who have been forgiven much should be able to forgive much and thank God for that pleasure.


Isaiah Pena said...

So, to clarify, your argument is that Calvin believed Christ died for all without exception while it's only efficient for all without distinction?

Steve said...

Isaiah, I don't like the formula "all without exception" vs. "all without distinction." It seems made for obfuscation rather than clarity. I would rather say that Calvin taught that Christ died for all, yet all do not receive him. It is easily demonstrated that Calvin also taught that God has chosen those who will receive him.