Monday, April 09, 2007

Calvin's View of the Atonement - Part II

What about 1John 2:2?

1John 2:2 KJV And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

One of Calvin's statements that is most relied upon in proving that Calvin did teach limited atonement is his comment on 1John 2:2. Here is Calvin's comment in its entirety from Christian Classics Ethereal Library:

And not for ours only. He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.

Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.

This quote is used primarily because it does speak directly to the issue of the extent of the atonement and Calvin does give a "Calvinistic" interpretation of the scripture. It includes the crucial words, "he does not include the reprobate...." Here, if nowhere else, Calvin is clearly being Calvin, and this gives the limited atonement advocates some comfort and support.

The problem with this quotation from Calvin is that an honest reading reveals that it does not support the limited atonement position. This will be seen on a careful analysis of his argument.

Analysis of Calvin's argument

First, Calvin asks how it could be that Christ is really the propitiation for the whole world. Could salvation extend to all the reprobate and to Satan himself? Calvin rightly recoils from such a monstrosity and gives two alternatives — two ways of understanding the passage without admitting the absurdity of universal salvation.

The first way — which Calvin rejects as unsuitable to the passage — is the distinction commonly made by the schoolmen, that Christ suffered sufficiently for all men and efficiently only for the elect. But it is important to note that though Calvin denies that this distinction is suitable to the passage, he does not deny the truth of the distinction. In fact, he admits the distinction to be a good one. He says, "Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage...." The distinction is true — Christ died sufficiently for all and efficiently for the elect — but the distinction does not apply to this passage.

We might — properly — consider Calvin's pronouncement on this point to be an obiter dictum: an opinion not necessary to the main argument. But even so, this statement runs directly counter to the idea that Calvin taught limited atonement.

The second way of understanding 1John 2:2, according to Calvin, is to see Christ's propitiation as extending to the church scattered throughout the world. Calvin held that this understanding was the true meaning of the apostle. But we must not allow ourselves to be carried away here. Though Calvin says that this verse ought to be understood as not referring to the reprobate, that does not mean that Calvin thought that Christ's propitiation has no reference to the reprobate at all. Calvin does not say here — indeed he never says in all of his corpus — that Christ's work has no reference to the reprobate. If that is what is meant by "limited atonement," then Calvin did not teach it.

So the problems for the limited atonement advocates in reference to this comment are twofold: there is nothing here that teaches limited atonement, and there is a statement — obiter dictum though it might be — that runs directly counter to their thesis.

Use of Calvin's 1John 2:2 comment

In James White's Dividing Line program, which I referred to in my previous post on this subject, White addressed the 1John 2:2 comment. As part of his comment on this point (which consisted mainly of criticism of Geisler's use of the comment in his book critiquing Calvinism) White said,

What [Calvin] denied the particular passage could be used to teach was the distinction the schoolmen made; he himself says that John is not including the reprobate in this statement.

What White says is true as far as it goes. Calvin did indeed deny that the passage teaches the distinction of the schoolmen. But to be strictly honest, one must also admit that Calvin admitted the truth of the distinction. This alone destroys the limited atonement thesis. And White is further correct that Calvin says that John does not refer to the reprobate. But honesty again requires the admission that this does not mean that Calvin believed that Christ's work has no reference to the reprobate. Calvin's opinion is limited to the teaching of 1John 2:2; he does not extend himself here to a systematic theology of the atonement.

I end with a quote from Calvin (one of many) that pulls the legs out from under the limited atonement advocate.

For the faithless have no profit at all by the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, but rather are so much the more damnable, because they reject the mean that God had ordained: and their unthankfulness shall be so much the more grievously punished, because they have trodden under foot the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was the ransom for their souls.

Calvin, Sermons on Galatians 1:3-5, Golding translation. Does the limited atonement advocate say, with Calvin, that Jesus Christ is the ransom for the souls of the faithless?

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4 comments:

YnottonY said...

Good stuff, Steve! Previously, I didn't pay much attention to how Calvin words the Lombardian formula. Notice that he says that "Christ **suffered** sufficiently for all". That is to say, the sins of all men lay on Christ. He bore the penalty in his flesh that all mankind deserve. Richard Baxter cites David Pareus (student of Zacharias Ursinus), of the Heidelberg school, to the same effect:

"And thus Pareus himself in his Irenicon saith, That the sins of all men lay on Christ; and so he died for all, that is, for all mens sins as the cause of his death: And you may tell any wicked man, Thy sins killed Christ (what-ever the deniers say to excuse them)."

Richard Baxter, Catholick Theologie (London, 1675), I.ii.53.

That's the classical way of understanding Christ's sufficiency, which Calvin calls true, even though he doesn't use the forumula to understand the particular passage at hand, i.e. 1 John 2:2. The high Calvinist citation of Calvin on this passage actually works against them. What can they do now but hopelessly run to the Heshusius text and shout "Read Helm! Read Helm!"?

Steve said...

Thanks, Tony. :-)

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