Thursday, June 21, 2007

Calvin vs. Cunningham & Nicole

Roger Nicole wrote an article published in the Westminster Theological Journal in 1985 entitled, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. Dr. Nicole's article has been published online at A Puritan's Mind, and I thank Dr. McMahon (and Dr. Nicole) for permission to quote from and link to that article.

I plan to critique the article at some length. Calvinists often cite Dr. Nicole as authority for the proposition that Calvin taught limited atonement, when it appears that nothing could be further from the truth. The corpus of Calvin's work abounds with evidence to the contrary. Dr. Nicole's arguments need to be examined and answered. I plan to proceed through Dr. Nicole's article paragraph by paragraph. I won't write about every paragraph, but I will highlight the arguments and attempt to answer them. The material that is purely bibliographic I will generally skip over unless there is a logical argument buried in it. For example, I may answer some of Dr. Nicole's critricisms of Kendall.

Early in the article, Dr. Nicole cites William Cunningham as one of the 19th-century defenders of the Calvin taught limited atonement position, and as perhaps the first to cite the Heshusius tract as proof of that position. (I have answered the alleged proof from Heshusius at some length in previous blog posts.) I begin my critique of Nicole's article with a review of Cunningham's arguments and Nicole's citation of them.

Did Calvin emphatically repudiate a universal saving will in God?

According to Dr. Nicole, Cunningham proved that Calvin did not teach unlimited atonement by two lines of reasoning.

William Cunningham's article, as is usual with this author, is a very solid and searching study. In addition to discussing the important quotation of Calvin noted above, Cunningham reasoned that Calvin's emphatic repudiation of a universal saving will and endorsement of election and reprobation as well as his particularistic interpretation of passages invariably appealed to by hypothetical universalists (1 Tim 2:4; 1 John 2:2) reflect a line of thought in which particular rather than universal redemption finds a fitting place.

Nicole's footnote 15 cites W. Cunningham, "Calvin and Beza," British and Foreign Evangelical Review 10 (1861) 641-702. Reprinted in The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Clark, 1862) 398-402.

The first line of proof is Calvin's so-called "emphatic repudiation of a universal saving will." It always surprises me to see it alleged that Calvin denied a universal saving will. It is surprising because — as far as I can tell — he never denied it, and often asserted it. Where can this "emphatic repudiation" be found? If Calvin did emphatically repudiate the idea, then either Dr. Nicole or his cited authority should have provided the proof. Alas, neither Nicole nor Cunningham provide any quotations, information, or argument. Here's what Cunningham says on the matter:

That Calvin denied the doctrine of God's universal grace or love to all men, as implying some desire or intention of saving them all, and some provision directed to that object, is too evident to any one who has read his writings, to admit of doubt or to require proof.

* * *

[T]he fact of Calvin so explicitly denying the doctrine of God's universal grace or love to all men, affords a more direct and certain ground for the inference, that he did not hold the doctrine of universal atonement....

Cunningham, Reformers, 398, 399. Cunningham's fallacy is petitio principii, or simply begging the question. It was Cunningham's duty to provide evidence of his contention, but he failed — refused — to provide it. What is so ironic about Cunningham's evasion is that he himself unwittingly provides proof to the contrary not two pages later in his article, where he quotes Calvin's view on 1Timothy 2:4. Here it is, in the Latin Cunningham used:

Apostolus simpliciter intelligit nullum mundi vel populum vel ordinem a salute excludi, quia omnibus sine exceptione evangelium proponi Deus velit.

Cunningham, 400. Or, in English, "the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception." Omnibus sine exceptionie — "all without exception." Is this not precisely the universalistic wish — "desire or intention" — that Cunningham denied is present in Calvin's thought? In fact, it is very easy to find God's universal love or grace taught in Calvin's work. Cunningham's failure to bring forward some solid evidence to the contrary is not surprising.

Nicole cannot escape censure here as well. He ought to have produced evidence of the alleged emphatic denial —even though Cunningham did not — if he thought it existed. The rote and uncritical citation of old authorities can lead to a chain of error that extends as far as human credulity. Authority X says "black is white." Authority Y quotes authority X. Authority Z, who respects Authority Y immensely, quotes him as saying that Authority X has proved "black is white." Before you know it, a whole cult builds up based on the authority of well-respected men.

This sort of thing used to occur frequently in the world of chess. Chess literature abounded with ideas based on authority quoting authority, even though the original writer may have been utterly wrong. The advent of strong chess-playing computer programs, available to any rank amateur for a few dollars, has reduced the incidence of this sort of thing. The merest beginner can fire up his computer and actually check whether the world-renowned authority is correct in his analysis.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in historical theology. The old documents are becoming available to the dummies on the internet. We are checking.

To disprove Nicole's and Cunningham's contention, one need only look to the obvious commentary on John 3:16, where Calvin waxed eloquent on the love of God shown to the whole world in the advent of Christ. I quote only a small part:

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.

Calvin, Commentary on John 3:16

Do particularistic interpretations of 1Timothy 2:4 and 1John 2:2 mean that all Calvin's interpretations must be particularistic?

The second argument made by Cunningham and echoed by Nicole is this: Calvin's particularistic interpretations of 1Timothy 2:4 and 1John 2:2 "reflect a line of thought in which particular rather than universal redemption finds a fitting place." (Nicole, at 201.)

On this second argument, Cunningham says the following:

The other consideration to which we referred, as affording some positive evidence, though not direct and explicit, that Calvin did not hold the doctrine of a universal atonement, is this, — that he has interpreted some of the principal texts on which the advocates of that doctrine rest it, in such a way as to deprive them of all capacity of serving the purpose to which its supporters commonly apply them. If this position can be established, it will furnish something more than a presumption, and will almost amount to a proof, that he did not hold the doctrine in question.

The flimsiness of this slip-shod argument is shocking. That Calvin held an interpretation of some passages (Cunningham cites only the two passages and Nicole provides nothing further) that is consistent with limited atonement is no proof whatsoever that Calvin held limited atonement or denied unlimited atonement.

First, it does not prove that Calvin held limited atonement, as Cunningham admits. He says, "Let it be observed, that our object is not to show, that we are warranted in adducing the authority of the great name of Calvin as a positive testimony in favour of the doctrine of particular redemption, — of a limited atonement...." (Cunningham at 400.)

And if Calvin's interpretation of these passages is consistent with limited atonement, it does not prove that his interpretation is inconsistent with unlimited atonement.

In fact, Calvin's interpretation of these passages is quite consistent with and often cited in favor of universalistic aspects of Christ's work. Calvin's comment on 1John 2:2 is often cited to show that Calvin approved of the formula sufficient for all, efficient for the elect. The comment on 1Timothy 2:4 contains the idea that God desires that the gospel be preached to all without exception.

Despite this obvious truth, Cunningham makes the bold claim that Calvin's position on those two passages "will almost amount to a proof, that he did not hold the doctrine in question." Nicole, following Cunningham, says that Calvin's interpretation of these passages "reflect a line of thought in which particular rather than universal redemption finds a place." (One could note the subtle shift of thought. Whereas Cunningham said that this line of reasoning shows that Calvin did not hold unlimited atonement, Nicole says that the line of reasoning reflects particularism rather than universalism — a significantly different idea, logically.)

A final point must be mentioned: if Calvin interpreted the two passages in a way suited to particularistic views, it does not mean that he had an agenda to interpret all such passages in that way. It may mean that for the sake of honesty he interpreted the passages in the way grammar, logic, and context demanded. If this be the case, must it necessarily follow that all such passages will be interpreted in the same way? For Calvin this is obviously not the case.

While making these meager connections, neither Cunningham nor Nicole deal with the strongly universalistic statements in Calvin. What of, for example, Calvin's statement in his comment to Romans 5:18?

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.

Calvin, Commentary on Romans 5:18

Cunningham's arguments are inadequate to his purpose, and Nicole's citation of Cunningham amounts to nothing more than an appeal to Cunningham's authority.

More to come


David Ponter said...

Brilliant Steve. I hope Nicole and others will read your posts.

YnottonY said...

"Thus all the more ought we groan, seeing that the world is too perverse to return to God, but rather elects to oppose him. This seeing how truly the Devil has blinded humankind, we are right to feel dejected and sad. Why? Because to see souls created in the image of God move toward their own damnation is hardly a light matter, especially souls that were redeemed at such a cost by the blood of God's Son. It ought to make us sad to see them perish so miserably. Above all, we must keep in mind the purpose for which our Lord ordained the preaching of the Gospel, that by faith, as Saint Paul says, we might render to God the obedience and honor that God is due [1 Timothy 1:17; 6;16], and that humankind might be saved, "for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" [Romans 1:16]. Consequently, in view of the fact that human malice frustrates God's intentions, we are justified in raising a lament similar to Micah's."

Calvin, Sermons on Micah, Sermon 25, 7:1-3, p., 371.

Even in this one quote, Calvin affirms that:

1) Christ redeemed some that perish.

2) God's revealed will that "humankind might be saved" by means of the gospel is called a "purpose."

3) Human malice "frustrates God's intentions."

On Galatians 5:12, Calvin connects "all men without exception" with the "whole world" for whom Christ suffered:

"for it is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world."

Here's Calvin again on Eze 18:23:

"He confirms the same sentiment in other words, that God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who were perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety. And for this reason not only is the Gospel spread abroad in the world, but God wished to bear witness through all ages how inclined he is to pity."

"...God wishes all to be saved..."

"...God wishes all to be converted."

Later, when Calvin says this...

"Since, therefore, repentance is a kind of second creation, it follows that it is not in man’s power; and if it is equally in God’s power to convert men as well as to create them, it follows that the reprobate are not converted, because God does not wish their conversion; for if he wished it he could do it: and hence it appears that he does not wish it. But again they argue foolishly, since God does not wish all to be converted, he is himself deceptive, and nothing can be certainly stated concerning his paternal benevolence."

...he is referencing God's decretal or secret will, in distinction to that will disclosed in his revealed word.

Frankly, Cunningham and Nicole (and McMahon) are not less than blind (it may be worse than blindness) to what Calvin is saying. As one man said, “When we lack the will to see things as they really are there is nothing more mysterious than the obvious.” When we lack the will to see the truth, we won't see it.

YnottonY said...

"He who rejecteth me. That wicked men may not flatter themselves as if their unbounded disobedience to Christ would pass unpunished, he, adds here a dreadful threatening, that though he were to do nothing in this matter, yet his doctrine alone would be sufficient to condemn them, as he says elsewhere, that there would be no need of any other judge than Moses, in whom they boasted, (John 5:45.) The meaning, therefore, is: “Burning with ardent desire to promote your salvation, I do indeed abstain from exercising my right to condemn you, and am entirely employed in saving what is lost; but do not think that you have escaped out of the hands of God; for though I should altogether hold my peace, the word alone, which you have despised, is sufficient to judge you."

Calvin on John 12:48.

The universal saving will of God is so plain in Calvin. He even says Christ "burned" with an "ardent desire" to save those who yet abided under the judgment of God as lost men.

Steve said...

Thanks for the comments David and Tony. I cannot comprehend the idea that Calvin "repudiated" a universal saving will in God. *That*, to me, is the mystery.