Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Calvin's View of the Atonement - Part IV

Two more reasons why Heshusius doesn't work

For those who advocate the position that Calvin taught limited atonement, Calvin's tract against Heshusius is the strong bulwark. But it won't work. I promised five reasons in my previous essay on Heshusius, but I've now upped it to six. In today's blog entry I'll give you reasons three and four and reserve the rest for another entry — to be posted soon, I promise!

To review briefly, here is the statement that the whole reformed world knows of:

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. As I pointed out in my previous essay, this is out of context in two ways: it fails to take account of Calvin's theology as a whole and it fails to take account of Calvin's statements within the Heshusius tract. In both Calvin's corpus as a whole and the Heshusius tract in particular, Calvin teaches a universal aspect in Christ's atonement. For Calvin, Christ is "the life and salvation of the world." (Theological Treatises, 285.)

3) "Wicked" doesn't mean "non-elect"

Let's consider the well-known statement quoted above. Does Calvin say that he would like to know how the non-elect (or the reprobate) eat the flesh of Christ offered in the Lord's Supper? No. He asks how the wicked eat the flesh of Christ. Calvin does not here distinguish between elect and reprobate, but between believers and unbelievers. He distinguishes between believers and unbelievers, between worthy and unworthy partakers. There is no hint of Calvin's argument treating of the unworthiness of the non-elect. Rather Calvin argues of the unworthiness of unbelievers.

It will eventually (if someone cares to actually read the tract) be pointed out, of course, that the end of the same paragraph in which the famous quote is found contains a distinction between elect and reprobate:

When he afterwards says that the Holy Spirit dwelt in Saul, we must send him to his rudiments, that he may learn how to discriminate between the sanctification which is proper only to the elect and the children of God, and the general power which even the reprobate possess. These quibbles, therefore, do not in the slightest degree affect my axiom, that Christ, considered as the living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter any human body which is devoid of his Spirit.

"Clearly," the limited atonement advocate will say, "Calvin has the distinction between elect and reprobate in his mind." Careless readers often will look simply for the proximity of words rather than a connection of meaning and argument. The words "elect" and "reprobate" appear on the same page, and all analysis is at an end. "Context," they will cry. They eagerly stamp their presuppositions (H.T. Tony) on any mention of right-sounding words regardless of grammar and reason.

But any sensible reader will see that Calvin speaks here of the difference between elect and reprobate with respect to the presence of the Holy Spirit, not with respect to participation in the spiritual benefits of the Lord's Supper. That such is the case is conclusively proved by the last part of the concluding sentence: "Christ, considered as the living bread and the victim immolated on the cross, cannot enter any human body which is devoid of his Spirit." The unbelieving (even if elect) have not Christ's Spirit and therefore cannot participate in the spiritual benefits of the Lord's Supper.

(I must credit my friend Tony for reminding me of this argument. Without his timely reminder, I might have let this point slip.)

4) The Limited Atonement Argument is Out of Place

The limited atonement advocates are representing Calvin as saying something like this: "since Christ has died only for the elect, I should like to know how the non-elect can spiritually participate in the Lord's Supper." But this argument would mean less than nothing to Heshusius.

As Curt Daniel points out, the introductory phrase, "I should like to know" is a flourish by Calvin indicating a rhetorical question. It poses a question for which Heshusius ought to give a satisfactory answer. Calvin is essentially demanding an accounting of Heshusius. Obviously then, Calvin is, by these words, introducing an argument based on principles espoused by Heshusius himself. If Calvin is arguing from a limited intention in the atonement to a limited spiritual partaking of the Lord's Supper, then the argument would be meaningless to Heshusius. Under the limited atonement presupposition, Heshusius would feel no obligation to answer.

Rather than feeling an obligation to answer, the argument would itself have provided a strong refuge for Heshusius. Since, as is conceded by all concerned, Heshusius did not hold to limited atonement, any argument against his darling doctrine of Christ's bodily presence in the bread and wine based on limited atonement, would have done more to confirm him in his belief than to move him from it. A limited atonement argument would have been like red meat to him. He would have attacked Calvin mercilessly on the point. We can imagine him saying, "Of course you have a defective view of Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper, for you have a defective view of Christ's work on the cross! Your corrupt doctrine of the atonement corrupts your view of the Supper."

I will go a step further. If — hypothetically speaking — Calvin were using limited atonement as an argument against Heshusius's view of the Supper, he would certainly have expounded on it fully. We would have more than just a passing reference in a rhetorical question (which is itself ironic in tone). No, the dispute would have been heated. Heshusius certainly would have goaded Calvin on the point (probably in strongly ironic language), which would have provoked Calvin to respond at length (and in kind). The fact that no such dispute appears in the tract — that limited atonement makes no appearance anywhere else in the dispute — itself indicates that this is not the basis on which Calvin makes his challenge. Calvin's real challenge will be suggested in a future (hopefully not too distant future) blog post.

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