Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Individuals or Classes? Calvin on 1Timothy 2:4-6

I offer this article as a supplement to the first article critiquing Roger Nicole's article entitled, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. (Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 197-225). I wish to address a point about Calvin's comment on 1Timothy 2:4 that may seem to some readers to have been omitted.

Classes of men vs. individuals in 1Timothy 2:4

In his comment to that verse, Calvin said, "God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception." In my previous blog post, I said that Calvin's statement shows his view that God has a universal love for mankind. Though I believe this to be true, there is a problem. In his comment to this verse, Calvin also said the following:

Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. "If God" say they, "wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition." They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men; although even then we should not have wanted the means of replying to their argument; for, although the will of God ought not to be judged from his secret decrees, when he reveals them to us by outward signs, yet it does not therefore follow that he has not determined with himself what he intends to do as to every individual man.

But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for 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. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations.

This is certainly problematic for my position. If Calvin is not speaking here of individual men, but only of man as a class (as seems apparent from the quoted paragraphs), then there is no reason to see a universal love of God in this comment. According to this view of things, God may desire all nations (whether Jew or gentile) and all ranks of men (whether peasants or kings, male or female, bond or free) to hear the gospel call; but this may not mean that God desires all individuals to hear the gospel call.

Classes vs. individuals in Calvin's comment to 1Timothy 2:5

The matter becomes even more difficult for my position from a statement Calvin makes in his comment to the following verse:

And one Mediator between God and men This clause is of a similar import with the former; for, as there is one God, the Creator and Father of all, so he says that there is but one Mediator, through whom we have access to the Father; and that this Mediator was given, not only to one nation, or to a small number of persons of some particular rank, but to all; because the fruit of the sacrifice, by which he made atonement for sins, extends to all. More especially because a large portion of the world was at that time alienated from God, he expressly mentions the Mediator, through whom they that were afar off now approach.

The universal term all must always be referred to classes of men, and not to persons; as if he had said, that not only Jews, but Gentiles also, not only persons of humble rank, but princes also, were redeemed by the death of Christ. Since, therefore, he wishes the benefit of his death to be common to all, an insult is offered to him by those who, by their opinion, shut out any person from the hope of salvation.

Regarding these paragraphs from Calvin's comment to 1Timothy 2:5, Nicole says this:

It is not fair to Calvin to separate the last sentence from the remainder of the paragraph and to pretend on that basis that he advocates a universal atonement.

Nicole at 213. Agreed, provided we keep two points in mind. First, one might argue universal atonement from Calvin on other bases and from other passages. Second, though it may be unfair to separate one sentence from another in a paragraph, it would be equally unfair to pretend that the first sentence of this paragraph must govern all of Calvin's work as a sort of hermeneutical rule (viz., the word "all" in Calvin must always refer to all classes of men, never to all individuals. I do not suggest that Nicole has made such a rule).

Calvin often speaks of all the individuals of humanity. The interpretation of universalistic passages of this sort must not be burdened by unreasonable and woodenly applied maxims. Thus though this particular passage may be equivocal because of the presence of the "classes" vs. "individuals" comment, that should not unduly restrict our interpretation of other passages, though we should admit the possibility of such a particularistic interpretation where warranted.

Does God desire that the gospel be proclaimed to all individuals?

The universalistic interpretation of Calvin that I am most concerned with in the 1Timothy 2:4-6 context is this:

... God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation.

Calvin, Comment to 1Timothy 2:4. Are we warranted in saying that the gospel call should be given to all individuals indiscriminately, and that thereby God invites all equally to partake of salvation? Does this truly represent a universalistic wish, will, or desire in God as I claimed in my previous essay? On this point Nicole — and I agree with him — says this:

To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language. We furthermore believe that Calvin was right in line with Scripture, and that those who would restrict the call to the elect are mistaken.

Nicole at 213. This suggests a positive answer to our question. It does at least answer the question regarding the divine command: the gospel should be preached to all individuals without exception. I would add that this also means that —for Calvin, at least— God desires for all men to hear the gospel.


Anonymous said...

I have to think that blog took a lot for you to write given your stated position. You may also want to read Raymond Blacketer's piece at: http://www.prca.org/articles/ctjblack.html

Don't be fooled by the PRC in the link. Blacketer is CRC all the way. The piece came out some time ago, but his handling of Calvin is very evenhanded. Admittedly, going further in the trajectory you've already started on in your blog.


Steve said...

Thank you for the comment. I have managed (somehow ... perhaps by nothing more than stubbornness) to reconcile my reformed beliefs with this new (new for me, that is) view of Calvin. I actually feel quite at ease in the position.

I appreciate your kind comment and the link. I will read the article with interest. I wish you would let yourself be known. :-)