Thursday, May 31, 2007

Judas and Calvin's theology of The Lord's Supper

Some of us were discussing The Lord's Supper and the question of the presence of Judas came up. There is a question raised by some because of the order of events portrayed in Luke's account. The question is settled in favor of Judas' presence by Luke 22:21:

But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table.

Calvin shares this view. It is instructive to hear Calvin's comment about the matter:

I hold it, then, as a settled point, and will not allow myself to be driven from it, that Christ cannot be disjoined from his Spirit. Hence I maintain, that his body is not received as dead, or even inactive, disjoined from the grace and power of his Spirit. I shall not occupy much time in proving this statement. Now in what way could the man who is altogether destitute of a living faith and repentance, having nothing of the Spirit of Christ, receive Christ himself? Nay more, as he is entirely under the influence of Satan and sin, how will he be capable of receiving Christ? While, therefore, I acknowledge that there are some who receive Christ truly in the Supper, and yet at the same time unworthily, as is the case with many weak persons, yet I do not admit, that those who bring with them a mere historical faith, without a lively feeling of repentance and faith, receive anything but the sign. For I cannot endure to maim Christ, and I shudder at the absurdity of affirming that he gives himself to be eaten by the wicked in a lifeless state, as it were. Nor does Augustine mean anything else when he says, that the wicked receive Christ merely in the sacrament, which he expresses more clearly elsewhere, when he says that the other Apostles ate the bread — the Lord; but Judas only the bread of the Lord.

But here it is objected, that the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend upon the worthiness of men, and that nothing is taken away from the promises of God, or falls to the ground, through the wickedness of men. This I acknowledge, and accordingly I add in express terms, that Christ’s body is presented to the wicked no less than to the good, and this is enough so far as concerns the efficacy of the sacrament and the faithfulness of God. For God does not there represent in a delusive manner, to the wicked, the body of his Son, but presents it in reality; nor is the bread a bare sign to them, but a faithful pledge. As to their rejection of it, that does not impair or alter anything as to the nature of the sacrament.

I find it worthwhile to note that for Calvin Christ himself is presented to the wicked, but the wicked who partake, partake only of the symbol, not of Christ himself. Whereas the faithful receive Christ in receiving the sacrament.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Perspective dominates hermeneutics - Nicole on Heshusius

One wishes for the bullet-proof quote. Against a determined opponent, the quote almost never is. When the quote is questionable or controversial to the least degree, the interpreter's biases nearly always determine the ultimate interpretation.

I thought of this (with, I must confess, a great deal of aggravation) when I read this analysis by Roger Nicole of the famous Heshusius quote:

Cunningham appears to be the first who referred to the following text of Calvin as reflecting a presumption of definite atonement. “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.”

This passage, found in a treatise on the Lord’s Supper destined to refute the fiery Lutheran Tilemann Heshusius, is rendered stronger by the fact that Heshusius, in good Lutheran fashion, did believe in universal atonement and therefore would not find Calvin’s argument persuasive at this point. But Calvin was so strongly oriented here that he appears to have forgotten that Heshusius would not share his presuppositions!

(Emphasis added.) In my previous analysis, I gave this as a reason not to read the quote as more strongly particularistic, but as a reason not to read it as particularistic at all! (I'm willing to match Nicole exclamation point for exclamation point.) It strikes me as extremely odd that a scholar would believe in his thesis so strongly that he would be inclined to think that Calvin forgot (!) the views of his opponent. But that's what Nicole does in order to see Calvin as using limited atonement as an argument against Heshusius.

It just goes to show you — our prejudices often color our interpretations so strongly that we will go to any plausible lengths to sustain those prejudices — even should it be at the expense of good hermeneutics.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Calvin Teaches Unlimited Atonement - John 3:16

A young friend of mine recently asked me if there were a verse in the Bible that explicitly states that Christ died for all men. I immediately offered John 3:16 as such a verse. He objected that John 3:16 shows God loving the world, not dying for the world.

This is true in a strictly literal sense: there is no mention of the word death in John 3:16.

On the other hand, the sending of John 3:16 obviously should be thought of as God sending His Son to propitiate by His death. I believe this is Calvin's view of the matter, and we can confirm this from the Institutes.

But since the whole Scripture proclaims that he was clothed with flesh in order to become a Redeemer, it is presumptuous to imagine any other cause or end. We know well why Christ was at first promised, viz., that he might renew a fallen world, and succour lost man. Hence under the Law he was typified by sacrifices, to inspire believers with the hope that God would be propitious to them after he was reconciled by the expiation of their sins. Since from the earliest age, even before the Law was promulgated, there was never any promise of a Mediator without blood, we justly infer that he was destined in the eternal counsel of God to purge the pollution of man, the shedding of blood being the symbol of expiation.

Institutes 2.12.4

In the paragraph following that cited above, Calvin gives John 3:16 as proof of this proposition. For Calvin the sending of John 3:16 was a sending to death as the redeemer.

But does Calvin believe that Christ was sent for the redemption of the sins of the world? Here are excerpts from Calvin's commentary on John 3:16. The reader may make is own judgment.

16. For God so loved the world. Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.

* * *

That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.

There's a lot from Calvin there, and I have provided only a partial excerpt. His comment is well worth studying in depth. It is available online should you wish to examine this further. I have highlighted some portions of the excerpts to show emphasis and stimulate thought along certain lines, not to encourage a neglect of the context.

John 3:16 is the clearest declaration of the universal intent of God to save all men through the death of Christ. Calvin's comment on this verse also clearly shows this universalism in his thinking as well.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

The Satisfaction of Christ: A Payment?

We in the reformed theological tradition are very much inclined to think of Christ's work on behalf of sinners as a payment. This is encouraged by the Biblical metaphor of ransom and redemption. It is reinforced by the arguments of theologians who encourage us to think in the terms of commerce.

John Owen is a good example. Here is just a sample from his Death of Death in the Death of Christ:

Satisfaction is a term borrowed from the law, applied properly to things, thence translated and accommodated unto persons; and it is a full compensation of the creditor from the debtor. To whom any thing is due from any man, he is in that regard that man’s creditor; and the other is his debtor, upon whom there is an obligation to pay or restore what is so due from him, until he be freed by a lawful breaking of that obligation, by making it null and void; which must be done by yielding satisfaction to what his creditor can require by virtue of that obligation: as, if I owe a man a hundred pounds, I am his debtor, by virtue of the bond wherein I am bound, until some such thing be done as recompenseth him, and moveth him to cancel the bond; which is called satisfaction.

Page 265.

Owen goes so far as to make this payment the basis of God's obligation to release sinners from their debts:

Fifthly, That whereas to receive a discharge from farther trouble is equitably due to a debtor who hath been in obligation, his debt being paid, the Lord, having accepted of the payment from Christ in the stead of all them for whom he died, ought in justice, according to that obligation which, in free grace, he hath put upon himself, to grant them a discharge.

Ibid., p. 273.

This conception of Christ's work as a payment underlies Owen's idea of double jeopardy. My reformed brothers and sisters are probably well aware of the argument memorialized in the lines attributed to Augustus Toplady:

If Thou hast my discharge procured, And freely in my room endured The whole of wrath divine, Payment God cannot twice demand, First at thy bleeding Surety’s hand, And then again at mine.

I wonder, though, whether this is a proper way to view the atonement. Did Christ make a strict and proper payment? Or is the language of "ransom" and "redemption" a metaphor? Would it never be a stretch to compare Christ's work to payment? I came across a verse recently that sheds light on this question:

For thus saith the LORD, Ye have sold yourselves for nought; and ye shall be redeemed without money.

Isaiah 52:3, KJV.

Redeemed without money. As Israel sold themselves for nothing, so God redeemed them (and by extension redeems us) without a demand of payment.

Some will say that this refers to the demand of payment from us. God will not demand a payment of us. But the idea of redemption is not that of the sinner redeeming himself through his own resources. The idea is that of salvation, delivery, and rescue by redemption. In verse 9, God tells Isaiah, "the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem." Here God tells Israel that He will rescue them, and it will be rescue motivated by His own gracious purposes.

Our sovereign God is a just God, but He is also a gracious God. Though we are "bought with a price," we are also "redeemed without money." Any arguments that fail to keep in mind that the ideas of "ransom" and "redemption" are metaphors can run afoul of Isaiah 52:3. We ought not to take these metaphors of purchase as running to the extent of crass commercialism, as many seem inclined to do.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

How Ought We to Preach the Gospel?

I know it is a question (for some a struggle) in the reformed community how to preach the gospel. What should we say about the crucifixion? Do we say "Christ died for you;" "Christ died for us;" "Christ died for sinners"?

Here is a hint at Calvin's answer from the Institutes 1.11.7. This is in the context of his objection to the Roman Catholics' use of images as "books of the unlearned."

The simple reason why those who had the charge of churches resigned the office of teaching to idols was, because they themselves were dumb. Paul declares, that by the true preaching of the gospel Christ is portrayed and in a manner crucified before our eyes (Gal_3:1). Of what use, then, were the erection in churches of so many crosses of wood and stone, silver and gold, if this doctrine were faithfully and honestly preached, viz., Christ died that he might bear our curse upon the tree, that he might expiate our sins by the sacrifice of his body, wash them in his blood, and, in short, reconcile us to God the Father? From this one doctrine the people would learn more than from a thousand crosses of wood and stone.

Dare we say, with Calvin, that Christ died to bear our curse, expiate our sins, and reconcile us to God? Can those who preach the gospel honestly say this to a congregation of who-knows-what-kind-of sinners? Our theology is deficient if we stumble here. If our doctrine of limited atonement prevents our honest and free proclamation of Christ's work on behalf of all men, then there must be something wrong with our doctrine.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Calvin Teaches Unlimited Atonement - Romans 5:18

My favorite commentator on the scriptures is Calvin — no question about it. The reason for my strong preference is not that I am a Calvinist, or that Calvin was one of the early reformers, or that I'm a Presbyterian (I'm not); it is Calvin's brilliant insight, clarity of expression, and stone-cold honesty that appeals to me. In Calvin these abilities and dispositions are combined with a Christ-centered theology, which makes him unequaled as an expositor of the holy scriptures.

Having given my defense against those who say that Calvin taught limited atonement (see my previous blog articles entitled "Calvin's View on the Atonement"), I intend now to make the positive case for Calvin's teaching of unlimited atonement.

This is not to say that Calvin saw no limitation whatsoever in the atonement, for he clearly did. As I mentioned previously, all Christians see some limitation in the atonement of one sort or another. Calvin said in several places that the atonement is only efficacious for those who believe. On at least one occasion, Calvin said that the atonement is efficacious only for the elect.

When I say that Calvin taught unlimited atonement, I mean that he said that the atonement is intended for all men. Remember the critical distinction between intention on the one hand and effect on the other. Calvin taught that God intended that the atonement benefit all men, but those benefits are only actually efficacious for some.

There are dozens of passages in Calvin's work in which he relates and expounds on these universal aspects of Christ's sacrifice. I propose to relate some of these here in this blog in serial fashion with my own comments.

Romans 5:18

Here is Calvin's comment on this verse:

18. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

* * *

18. Therefore, etc. This is a defective sentence; it will be complete if the words condemnation and justification be read in the nominative case; as doubtless you must do in order to complete the sense. We have here the general conclusion from the preceding comparison; for, omitting the mention of the intervening explanation, he now completes the comparison, “As by the offense of one we were made (constitute) sinners; so the righteousness of Christ is efficacious to justify us. He does not say the righteousness — dikaiosunen, but the justification — dikaioma, of Christ, in order to remind us that he was not as an individual just for himself, but that the righteousness with which he was endued reached farther, in order that, by conferring this gift, he might enrich the faithful. 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.

These two words, which he had before used, judgment and grace, may be also introduced here in this form, “As it was through God’s judgment that the sin of one issued in the condemnation of many, so grace will be efficacious to the justification of many.” Justification of life is to be taken, in my judgment, for remission, which restores life to us, as though he called it life-giving. For whence comes the hope of salvation, except that God is propitious to us; and we must be just, in order to be accepted. Then life proceeds from justification.

(Emphasis added.) Notice the emphasized sentence. Here Calvin clearly affirms that Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world. This is not an atonement that is merely or hypothetically sufficient for the whole world, but is rather an atonement in which our Savior suffered for the sins of the whole world.

Further, the benefits of the atonement are offered through God's goodness to all men indiscriminately. Man, through his unbelief, fails to appropriate those blessings that God has offered to all men through faith in His Son.

What does Calvin mean by the first clause of the sentence? ("He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all....") The favor refers to the last part of verse 18: "the free gift came upon all men...." This free gift, or favor as Calvin calls it, is not actually given to all men, but it is propounded — announced or offered — to all men.

Here we plainly have the universal intention of God to bless all men through his benevolence, the universal proclamation of the blessings of the gospel to all who believe, and the requirement that men approach God only through faith in Christ.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Word in Favor of Limited Atonement

All Christians believe in limited atonement. The atonement does not save all men.

Arminians believe that the atonement is unlimited even though some men are not saved. What they mean is that Christ's work is intended for all men and any man equally and without any distinction. The limitation is strictly man's doing. Man exercises his free will and the way he exercises his will determines whether the atonement does him saving good. God's intention is universal and the application of the benefits of the atonement is particular, i.e., to those who believe.

Some Calvinists take the opposite view: Christ's atonement is intended for the elect exclusively and this limitation of intention limits the application. In this case both God's intention and the application of the benefits are particular.

In both the Arminian scheme and the Calvinistic, the application is particular. Only those who believe will be saved. The important difference between these two views is in the intention of God; in the one case it is strictly universal and in the other case it is strictly particular.

Are these the only possible positions? Some Calvinists take a different view of God's intention: a middle road or tertium quid. These Calvinists see both a universal intention and a particular intention in God's purposes and in the atonement itself. This is the position that I am advocating in this blog. I believe it is the position of John Calvin.

As I pointed out in a previous two-part blog post regarding the unity of the Trinity, (entitled "The Incongruity of Limited Atonement) the particular intention is reflected in the decree of election and the effectual call, while the universal intention is reflected in God's universal love (Matthew 5:45) and the general call (Acts 17:30).

Many who hold the "L" in TULIP these days, hold it strictly, i.e., they hold that the intention and the application are equally limited. I suggest that one can hold the "L" while also holding that there are universal aspects in the atonement, as there are universal aspects in God's love and in the call of the gospel. This involves no conflict within the Trinity.

These divergent intentions in God — universal and particular — are generally said to reflect different aspects of God's will (or even "two wills" in God). The particular intention is — prior to its execution in history — known only to God, while the universal intention is declared to all (in principle, though not in actuality) through revelation. These intentions correspond to God's secret will and His revealed will.

The secret will and the revealed will are often (usually?) at variance from one another, but we ought not (it seems to me) to consider one as "more real" than the other. The secret will is not more real because it is actually carried into fruition, nor is it less real though it is often contrary to that which is revealed as God's will. For Christians committed to the authority of the scripture and the Holiness of God, both His revealed will and His secret will must be considered real, meaningful, and in keeping with His Holy character.

This may involve us in mysteries, but this cannot be avoided by any method than smoothing out one's theology to fit with one's biases. One may smooth out the theology in the Arminian way, by denying all sovereign interference in man's will. In this theology, God effectively has no secret will: man decides his own course. One may smooth out the theology in the way of certain Calvinists by exalting the secret will to primary status and relegating the revealed will to irrelevancy or nonexistence. In this theology, God effectively has no revealed will and man's volitions become meaningless.

It seems to me that both ways are wrong.

I submit that the middle way is the way of Calvin. We can see this in his commentary on 2Peter 3:9. Though this comment does not directly relate to the atonement, it does reflect Calvin's universalism in respect of God's love and his view of the secret and revealed will of God:

But the Lord is not slack, or, delays not. He checks extreme and unreasonable haste by another reason, that is, that the Lord defers his coming that he might invite all mankind to repentance.

* * *

And as to the duration of the whole world, we must think exactly the same as of the life of every individual; for God by prolonging time to each, sustains him that he may repent. In the like manner he does not hasten the end of the world, in order to give to all time to repent.

This is a very necessary admonition, so that we may learn to employ time aright, as we shall otherwise suffer a just punishment for our idleness.

Not willing that any should perish. So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.

But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.

Re-read this passage in Calvin and notice some things. Notice the universality: "all mankind," "give to all time to repent," love towards mankind, all to be saved, etc. But notice also the particularity reflected in the final paragraph. The reprobate are doomed to their own ruin while God lays hold of those whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.

More importantly for my purposes in this article, notice Calvin's reference to God's hidden purpose one the one hand and his will as made known to us in the gospel on the other hand. In God's hidden purpose, "the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin." While in God's will as expressed in the gospel, he "stretches forth his hand without a difference to all." There we have the difference between the secret will and the revealed will taught by Calvin himself. And these two aspects of God's will are particular and universal respectively.

So I do hold to limited atonement. I hold that God has a special love for his elect, which is reflected in Christ's work for his church, and results in the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. I also hold that in some ways the atonement is for all men. I hold that God has love for all men, which is reflected in his sending Christ to save the world, and results in the general call of the gospel to any who will hear.

How do I hold to limited atonement? In this way:

For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.

1Timothy 4:10

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