Saturday, April 21, 2007

Calvin's View of the Atonement - Part VI

Another Way to Understand Heshusius

The problem with the high Calvinists' understanding of Calvin's tract against Heshusius is that — given their understanding of it — the quote they rely on is so jarringly out of place. It doesn't fit with Calvin's theology or with his argument against Heshusius. Here is the quote. But this time I'm going to provide a larger portion of the paragraph.

It is worth while to observe in passing, with what acuteness he disposes of my objection, that Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit. His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them. Does he mean to astonish us by a miracle when he tells us that the blind see it? It has been clearly enough shown that nothing of the kind is to be seen in the words of Paul. He endeavors to disentangle himself by saying, that Christ is present with his creatures in many ways. 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? I agree with him, that Christ is present as a strict judge when his Supper is profaned. But it is one thing to be eaten, and another to be a judge.

I am going to review this passage to illustrate the substance and method of Calvin's argument against Heshusius. In so doing we will (if I attain my objectives) have a brief survey of the entire tract. But first, I present reason number six for rejecting the Heshusius tract as an argument for Calvin's teaching of limited atonement:

6) Calvin argued against Christ's local bodily presence in the elements of the Lord's Supper, not against unlimited atonement

The dispute between Calvin and Heshusius was not the atonement, it was Christ's local bodily presence in the Eucharistic elements. Calvin himself states the matter in contention as follows:

Hence it follows, that our dispute relates neither to presence nor to substantial eating, but only as to the mode of both. We neither admit a local presence, nor that gross or rather brutish eating of which Heshusius talks so absurdly when he says, that Christ in respect of his human nature is present on the earth in the substance of his body and blood, so that he is not only eaten in faith by his saints, but also by the mouth bodily without faith by the wicked.

For the sake of clarity, I should point out that Calvin does not dispute Christ's presence in the elements, but the mode of His presence in the elements. Notice also that the local bodily presence of Christ in the elements brings up two other issues, viz., Christ's bodily presence on earth and the wicked's partaking of Christ by physical ingestion. That is the dispute, not the extent of the atonement. Naturally we would expect Calvin's arguments to address the issue of Christ's bodily presence, not the irrelevant (to the dispute) issue of the extent of the atonement. This is further buttressed by the fact (as I pointed out previously) that Calvin held that Christ is given to unbelievers in the Lord's Supper.

Calvin's Irony

To begin the review of the passage containing the critical sentence (as promised above), note the irony Calvin used in addressing Heshusius and his arguments.

It is worth while to observe in passing, with what acuteness he disposes of my objection, that Christ cannot be separated from his Spirit. His answer is, that as the words of Paul are clear, he assents to them. Does he mean to astonish us by a miracle when he tells us that the blind see it?

"Blind" is one of the kindest adjectives Calvin used of Heshusius in the entire tract! In the very first line of the tract Calvin calls him "petulant, dishonest, rabid." Later in the very same first paragraph he addresses Heshusius's arguments as coming "from another sink." Further on, Calvin accuses him of seeking "fame by advancing paradoxes and absurd opinions." One could go on at further and more humorous lengths. Calvin certainly was not above making Heshusius the object of obloquy. (One wonders if Calvin were not inspired by the spirit of Luther in answering the Lutherans!)

Besides mocking Heshusius himself at every turn, Calvin shows Heshusius's doctrine in the most unfavorable light. At one point he says, "If Christ is in the bread, he should be worshipped under the bread." He compares Heshusius's doctrine of the Eucharist unfavorably to the Roman Catholic doctrine. Calvin says:

[Heshusius] vindicates himself and the churches of his party from the error of transubstantiation with which he falsely alleges that we charge them. For though they have many things in common with the Papists, we do not therefore confound them together and leave no distinction. I should rather say, it is long since I showed that the Papists in their dreams are considerably more modest and more sober.

Early on in the tract, Calvin engages Heshusius at some length on whether Christ's flesh is bitten by teeth. Calvin asks, "Why should he be so afraid of the touch of the palate or throat, while he ventures to assert that it is absorbed by the bowels?"

I point all of this out to show that in making his challenge to Heshusius regarding the wicked eating the flesh of Christ that was not sacrificed for them, Calvin intended to show Heshusius in the worst possible light. He was not engaging in irenic philosophical dispute. He was charging Heshusius with gross absurdities and inconsistencies. We should not be surprised at Calvin's calling up grotesque images and ideas in his criticism of Heshusius — the more grotesque the better, one imagines. What comic irony would there be in charging Heshusius with violating a principal that he did not hold?

I've exceeded a thousand words already, so I shall continue this next time. There's a lot more to go.

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