Friday, June 01, 2007

The Heshusius Tract Proves Calvin Didn't Teach Limited Atonement

My thesis is that Calvin did not teach limited atonement — not the kind advocated by most modern Calvinists at least. This is proved by a reading of Calvin's tract against Heshusius. In previous blog posts, I went through the famous statement from the tract that supposedly proves that Calvin did teach limited atonement. (You know the one — "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?") My analysis shows that far from proving the point, Calvin's argument against Heshusius actually proves the opposite (Nicole to the contrary notwithstanding).

I would like to focus on a slightly different aspect of the Heshusius matter. My friends Tony Byrne and David Ponter have made much of the fact that the sincere offer of the gospel must be backed by a universal expiation. If the sin of all men was not borne by Christ on the cross, then the offer of the gospel to them must, of necessity, be empty of meaning.

I wish to consider this question in the setting of Calvin's theology of the Lord's Supper and draw inferences about Calvin's theology of the atonement from his theology of the Lord's Supper. (Another of my friends has alleged that no such inference may properly be made, but we shall see.)

The substantial presence of Christ in the elements

As we saw in examining the Heshusius tract, Calvin believed that Christ is substantially present in the elements of the Eucharist.

[I]t is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ....

One should note that Calvin says not only that Christ is given to us in the Supper, but that Christ's flesh, his body and blood, is given to us in the Supper. Such is the mystery that Calvin treats of in his doctrine of the Lord's Supper — the substantial, but not material and local, presence of Christ's flesh in the elements.

I do not restrict this union to the divine essence, but affirm that it belongs to the flesh and blood, inasmuch as it was not simply said, My Spirit, but, My flesh is meat indeed; nor was it simply said, My Divinity, but, My blood is drink indeed.

The offer of Christ in the elements

Second, this presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements is also an offer to believers and unbelievers alike to partake of the benefits of his atonement. I have three quotations from the tract to that effect. Quote number one:

Still [Heshusius] 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....

Quotation number two:

It is indeed true, that contumely is offered to the flesh of Christ by those who with impious disdain and contempt reject it when it is held forth for food; for we maintain, that in the Supper Christ holds forth his body to reprobates as well as to believers....

And number three:

[I]n [the sacraments] accordingly we obtain possession of Christ, and spiritually receive him with his gifts: nay, he is certainly offered in common to all, to unbelievers as well as to believers.

In the Lord's Supper, Christ is presented as the life-giving sacrifice for sins

The third point in my argument is that according to Calvin, the Supper presents Christ as the lamb slain for our sins. The observance is not merely a memorial or a duty to be performed, but a picture of the gospel and an offer of the benefits of it. Because of the sacrifice that the Supper portrays, the sacrament gives life to all who partake in faith.

In this first quotation, Calvin shows that by partaking, believers are given spiritual life and are substantially fed through the elements. He says:

But it is declared in my writings more than a hundred times, that so far am I from rejecting the term substance, that I ingenuously and readily declare, that by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ. I also constantly admit that we are substantially fed on the flesh and blood of Christ....

In this next quote, Calvin opposes Heshusius's insistence on the physical presence of Christ's body in the elements:

His [Heshusius's] expression is, that the very substance of the flesh and blood must be taken by the mouth; whereas I define the mode of communication without ambiguity, by saying, that Christ by his boundless and wondrous power unites us into the same life with himself, and not only applies the fruit of his passion to us, but becomes truly ours by communicating his blessings to us, and accordingly conjoins us to himself in the same way in which head and members unite to form one body.

Note carefully in this previous quote that Calvin makes a close connection between the observance of the Eucharist and the application of the benefits of the atonement. According to Calvin, the benefits of Christ's passion are applied through participation in the Supper. The communion observance communicates Christ's life to us. How fearful, then, the consequences of the neglect of or the exclusion from this observance. And is that not the point of church discipline —excommunication — which is named for the exclusion from the Lord's Supper?

Next, let's return to a quote already given above in part. Here Calvin answers Heshusius's charge that Calvin's doctrine fails to take into account that the unworthy are condemned for their failure to discern the Lord's body in the Supper:

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.

Again take note that in their contempt for the Supper, the wicked set at nought the lamb of God. So close is the connection between Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper and his doctrine of the atonement.

The Supper is not a sham offer

Here I have only one quote from the tract:

In our Agreement it is twice or thrice, distinctly stated, that since the testimonies and seals which the Lord has given us of his grace are true, he, without doubt, inwardly performs that which the sacraments figure to the eye, and in them accordingly we obtain possession of Christ, and spiritually receive him with his gifts....

This idea is not popular in the reformed community in America. It is certainly not popular among the Baptists and apparently not so popular among most Presbyterians. But Calvin plainly taught that the promises of the sacraments are more than merely signs or symbols.

In this article I have limited myself to quotations from the tract against Heshusius, but all of the arguments here could have been sustained from sentiments expressed in the Institutes or Commentaries. The reader might consult Book 4 of the Institutes, chapter 17. Or take a look at Calvin's commentary on 1Corinthians 11.

Limited atonement antithetical to Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper

Let me state this in a somewhat controversial manner, noting that, ironically, I am myself a Baptist. Apart from the Federal Vision sympathizers, most Presbyterians have a Baptist view of the Lord's Supper. This may be due, in part, to the incongruity between the common doctrine of limited atonement and Calvin's view of the Supper. How could one hold to Calvin's view of the Supper and seriously preach limited atonement as it is commonly preached?

Imagine a Sunday church service on an occasion when the Supper is to be observed. Imagine this particular Sunday coinciding with a sermon on limited atonement. Imagine the irony, then, when the minister presents Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper: that Christ's crucified flesh is substantially present in the Supper; that in offering the elements Christ offers himself to all; that those who by faith feed on the elements feed on Christ; that in partaking of the Lord's Supper, "by the incomprehensible agency of the Spirit, spiritual life is infused into us from the substance of the flesh of Christ."

Concluding thoughts

I take my final quote from Calvin's Institutes:

For these are words which can never lie nor deceive - Take, eat, drink. This is my body, which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. In bidding us take, he intimates that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation. And we ought carefully to observe, that the chief, and almost the whole energy at the sacrament consists in these words, It is broken for you; it is shed for you.

Institutes 4.17.3 The idea that there must be a universal expiation behind a universal gospel offer is appealing at an intellectual level, but it is also susceptible to evasions. Evasion is not really possible (at least it becomes more difficult) when the doctrine is given tangible expression in the Lord's Supper. Here is Christ really; here is a real offer, an offer to believer and unbeliever alike; here is the application of the benefits of the atonement; here is the reality of a table set, a feast spread; here is the banquet to which all are invited. Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper seems utterly incompatible with the kind of limited atonement often held in Calvinistic circles today.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

3 comments:

Terry W. said...

Good stuff, Steve. Only one condition has to be met by the one present when the gospel is offered for it to be offerable to him personally. Is he a member of the human race?

Blessings in Christ,
Terry W. West

Steve said...

Thanks Terry. :-)

Steve said...

There is a wealth of source material at the Calvin and Calvinism blog on Calvin and limited atonement.

Steve