Saturday, April 14, 2007

Calvin's View of the Atonement - Part III

Yeah, but what about Heshusius?

The final refuge for the limited atonement advocate — and the argument with the strongest appeal on the face of it — is the statement Calvin made in his treatise against Heshusius. Here is the statement:

But the first thing to be explained is, how Christ is present with unbelievers, as being the spiritual food of souls, and, in short, the life and salvation of the world. And as he adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?

Theological Treatises, 285. (You can also find the tract against Heshusius online.) The person who insists that Calvin taught limited atonement sees vindication for their position in Calvin's questions: "I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them? and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?" Clearly here, if nowhere else, Calvin is telling us that there are some men for whom Christ was not crucified.

Or perhaps not so clearly. The limited atonement advocates (by that I mean those who believe Calvin taught that Christ did not die for some men) see Calvin's question as rhetorically teaching that there are some men ... the wicked ... for whom Christ did not die. His flesh was "not crucified for them" and his blood "not shed to expiate their sins." But the question is not as simple as it is normally presented. I will list five reasons why I reject this interpretation of Calvin's comments.

1) The Context of Calvin's Work

First, the comment is out of keeping with Calvin's theology. As far as I know, this comment is not repeated in any other place in Calvin's corpus. In fact, Calvin contradicts this idea in many places. For example:

Wherever the faithful are dispersed throughout the world, John extends to them the expiation wrought by Christ’s death. But this does not alter the fact that the reprobate are mixed up with the elect in the world. It is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the world. But the solution lies close at hand, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life (Jn 3:15). For the present question is not how great the power of Christ is or what efficacy it has in itself, but to whom he gives Himself to be enjoyed. If possession lies in faith and faith emanates from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that only he is reckoned in the number of God’s children who will be partakers of Christ. The evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ as nothing else than by His death to gather the children of God into one (Jn 11:52). Hence we conclude that the reconciliation is offered to all through Him, yet the benefit is peculiar to the elect, that they may be gathered into the society of life.

Calvin, The Eternal Predestination of God, p., 148-9.

According to this quote from Calvin, Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the world, a world that has the elect and the reprobate mixed up together in it. And this reconciliation is offered to all, though benefitting only the elect. This idea runs throughout Calvin's theology and throughout his works. Thus for Calvin to say seriously in response to Heshusius that Christ was not crucified for the wicked is a rather fantastic idea and quite out of keeping.

2) The Immediate Context

My second reason for rejecting this interpretation of Calvin's words is that it is out of keeping with what Calvin said in the tract against Heshusius itself. Consider this statement:

Still he insists, and exclaims that nothing can be clearer than the declaration, that the wicked do not discern the Lord’s body, and that darkness is violently and intentionally thrown on the clearest truth by all who refuse to admit that the body of Christ is taken by the unworthy.

He might have some color for this, if I denied that the body of Christ is given to the unworthy; but as they impiously reject what is liberally offered to them, they are deservedly condemned for profane and brutish contempt, inasmuch as they set at nought that victim by which the sins of the world were expiated, and men reconciled to God.

That is, Calvin admits that in the Lord's Supper Christ is given to the unworthy, and asserts that these unbelievers are justly condemned for rejecting Christ's sacrifice for them. Some limited atonement advocates will balk at this and insist that by "world" here Calvin does not mean every man. But there is no reason to suppose this. The immediate context makes this reference quite clear.

The next post will have reasons 3) and 4).

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YnottonY said...

Hi Steve,

I just thought I would put the link in for you. I just tried to call you to see if you know about the HTML code to do this yet. If not, we'll discuss it ;-)

Steve's link to the original Heshusius Material

You should see some visitors coming to this post since I linked to it on the Founder's blog.

YnottonY said...

Click here, Steve, to see how to type in the HTML code:

HTML Link Code

Steve said...

Thanks very much, Tony. I don't know why I didn't link it.

Steve said...

I don't know about the page reference I have for that final quote from Calvin. I'm looking at a pdf right now that indicates that the correct page number should be 165-6. Different editions, perhaps.