In a recent blog article, I commented on Calvin's statement regarding Isaiah 53:12, that "'many' sometimes denotes 'all.'" This sentiment is quite opposite of the modern Calvinistic party line, which generally insists that "many" does not mean "all."
The consequences of this line of thinking are significant. If "many" sometimes means "all," not only does limited atonement lose one of its supports, the number of problem passages increases. If we take Calvin's view on Isaiah 53:12, for example, the verse turns from an argument for limited atonement to an argument against limited atonement.
(Caveat: when I speak of "limited atonement," I mean the kind generally held. I believe in limited atonement as defined by R. L. Dabney and unlimited atonement as defined by W. G. T. Shedd. Get a handle on that distinction and you have made a giant step toward understanding moderate Calvinism.)
Is it really that bad?
Maybe it isn't really so bad for high Calvinism. We can understand Calvin slipping up in one place or another. It's not like this is a recurring theme in Calvin's writings ... is it?
Unfortunately for high Calvinism, it is a recurring theme. Here are several passages containing the same idea.
Sermon on Isaiah 52:12
That, then, is how our Lord Jesus bore the sins and iniquities of many. But in fact, this word "many" is often as good as equivalent to "all". And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world. For it is not speaking of three or four when it says: "For God so loved the world, that he spared not His only Son." But yet we must notice that the Evangelist adds in this passage: "That whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but obtain eternal life." Our Lord Jesus suffered for all, and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation through him. Unbelievers who turn away from Him and who deprive themselves of him by their malice are today doubly culpable. For how will they excuse their ingratitude in not receiving the blessing in which the could share by faith?
Calvin, Sermons on Isaiah's Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, 52:12, p., 140-1.
Commentary on Matthew 20:28
"And to give his life a ransom for many." Christ mentioned his death, as we have said, in order to withdraw his disciples from the foolish imagination of an earthly kingdom. But it is a just and appropriate statement of its power and results, when he declares that his life is the price of our redemption; whence it follows, that we obtain an undeserved reconciliation with God, the price of which is to be found nowhere else than in the death of Christ. Wherefore, this single word overturns all the idle talk of the Papists about their abominable satisfactions. Again, while Christ has purchased us by his death to be his property, this submission, of which he speaks, is so far from diminishing his boundless glory, that it greatly increases its splendor. The word "many" (pollon) is not put definitely for a fixed number, but for a large number; for he contrasts himself with all others. And in this sense it is used in Romans 5:15, where Paul does not speak of any part of men, but embraces the whole human race.
Commentary on Mark 14:24
"Which is shed for many." By the word "many" he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke--Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated.
Commentary on Hebrews 9:28
"To bear," or, "take away sins", is to free from guilt by his satisfaction those who have sinned. He says the sins of many, that is, of all, as in Romans 5:15. It is yet certain that not all receive benefit from the death of Christ; but this happens, because their unbelief prevents them. At the same time this question is not to be discussed here, for the Apostle is not speaking of the few or of the many to whom the death of Christ may be available; but he simply means that he died for others and not for himself; and therefore he opposes many to one.