Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Comparison of the Universalistic and Particularistic John Flavel

Some Christian doctrine is difficult. It challenges our self-image by bringing us face to face with the limits of the finite. To put it plainly, we don't know everything, and God sometimes tells us things that would require more knowledge than we possess to properly understand.

(That doesn't mean, of course, that we ought to reject the truth or succumb to skepticism.)

Calvin's universalism and particularism

Calvin's doctrine of the atonement is one of those doctrines that we find it difficult to believe. There is no dispute that Calvin believed in predestination. There ought to be no dispute, on the other hand, that he also taught that Christ died for all men. Many who read Calvin, including eminent scholars, find Calvin's doctrine of predestination irreconcilable with the idea of universal atonement. And so they reject Calvin's plainly universalistic statements. He must have taught limited atonement, or else he could not have held to predestination. (See Paul Helm, for example.)

John Flavel's universalism and particularism

But not all theologians who followed in the Calvinistic tradition had such skeptical reactions. John Flavel is a good example.

My friend Tony Byrne has posted several quotations from John Flavel on his blog lately. Consider this strongly universalistic statement from Flavel that Tony posted on his blog on September 3rd:

[T]he first motions of mercy and salvation to you freely arise out of his grace and good pleasure. God entreats you to be reconciled. 2 Cor. 5 : 20. The blessed Lord Jesus, whose blood thy sins have shed, now freely offers that blood for thy reconciliation, justification, and salvation, if thou wilt but sincerely accept him ere it be too late.

Here is Flavel speaking of Christ's blood having been shed for the sins of all sinners. Very much in the vein of Calvin's thought.

On the other hand, here is Flavel with a strongly particularistic statement. Flavel speaks here of Isaiah 53:12:

In this verse we have, 1. His work. * * * His work, which was indeed a hard work, to pour out his soul unto death, aggravated by the companions, with whom, being numbered with transgressors; the capacity in which, bearing all the sins of the elect, "he bare the sins of many"....

So which is it?

Did Christ die for all — or did he die for the elect?

The answer, of course, is, "both." Christ died for all men in some senses (which include redemptive and gracious purposes) though these senses do not necessarily reach to actual application of the eternal salvation purchased by Christ. From Flavel's universalistic and particularistic statements, I conclude that he held to some sort of dual aspect to the atonement, probably along lines similar to Calvin.

How does one reconcile universalism with particularism? Well, there are ways —there is always a way— though these ways may seem artificial or speculative. But we must accept the plain statements of scripture, though we may find them difficult —or impossible— to reconcile. To paraphrase R. L. Dabney, it would be exceeding presumption to suppose that because we do not see a reconciliation to the problem, none can be known to God.


YnottonY said...

Hi Steve,

As I told you on the phone a few days ago, I am not sure about Flavel. I admit that the quotation you provide here sounds like the "bold proclamation" [telling everyone that Christ died for them], I don't think it is bullet proof. For instance, consider what John Flavel said here:

"IV. The persons for whom, and in whose stead he offered himself to God, were the whole number of God's elect, which were given him of the Father, neither more nor less: so speak the scriptures. He laid down his life for the sheep, John x. 15, for the church, Acts xx. 28, for the children of God, John xi. 50-52. It is confessed, there is sufficiency of virtue in this sacrifice to redeem the whole world, and on that account some divines affirm he is called the "Saviour of the world," John iv. 42, et alibi. We also acknowledge that the elect being scattered in all parts, and among all ranks of men in the world, and unknown to those that are to tender Jesus Christ to men by the preaching of the gospel; the style of the gospel (as it was necessary) is by such indefinite expressions suited to the general tenders they are to make of him: but that the efficacy and saving virtue of this all-sufficient sacrifice is co-extended with God's election, so that they all, and no others can, or shall reap the special benefits of it, is too clear in the scriptures to be denied, Eph. v. 23; John xvii. 2. 9. 19,20; John x. 26-28 ; 1 Tim. iv. 10."

In this same work he takes kosmos in John 3:16 as the elect. "The Fountain of Life Opened" will be problematic for anyone who wants to claim that Flavel was moderate, I think. Scan though this work and see what I am saying. He may be close to us in some writings, but I am not yet convinced that he was moderate.

You're on your own ;-)


Steve said...

Hi Tony.

I grant that Flavel is more particularistic in some of his statements; but we are alleging that it is possible to hold both to limited atonement and some sense of universalism. It seems to me that reading Flavel in that way is very natural.


YnottonY said...

Ok, Steve. Take a look at this. John Flavel is indiscriminately exhorting any and all of his unregenerate listeners to come to Christ. He sets out various motives for them to come, and says this:

"MOTIVE 3. Jesus Christ has an unquestionable right to enter into and possess every one of your souls. Satan is but an usurper: Christ is your lawful owner and proprietor; thy soul, sinner, hath not so full a title to thy body, as Christ hath to thy soul. Satan keeps Christ out of his right. Christ knocks at the door of his own house; he built it, and therefore may well claim admission into it: it is his own creature. "By him were all things created that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible;" bodies or souls. Col. 1:16. The invisible part, thy soul, is his workmanship a stately structure of his own raising. He has also a right by redemption; Christ hath bought thy soul, arid that at the invaluable price of his own blood. Who then can dispute the right of Christ to enter into his own house? But, alas, he cometh to his own and his own receive him not. John 1:11."

John Flavel, Christ Knocking at the Door of Sinners' Hearts; or, A Solemn Entreaty to Receive the Saviour and His Gospel in This the Day of Mercy (New York: American Tract Society, 1850), pp. 135-136.

I think your view on Flavel is warranted, at least in terms of the later Flavel (since this sermon was preached near the end of his life). I don't know whether or not he changed his views, but the language above is not the sort of thing a thinking high Calvinist would say. Rather, the high Calvinist would ambiguously say to unbelievers that, "Christ died for sinners," and not "Christ hath bought thy soul, arid that at the invaluable price of his own blood." Flavel is making the "bold proclamation" here by indiscriminately telling unbelievers that Christ redeemed them and bought them with his blood.

YnottonY said...

Typo correction. It should say:

"He has also a right by redemption; Christ hath bought thy soul, and that at the invaluable price of his own blood."