Saturday, November 03, 2007

Nicole's critique of R. T. Kendall's view of history

I am going to devote a few articles to Roger Nicole's criticism of R. T. Kendall, which appears in Nicole's well-known article on Calvin and limited atonement. (John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement. (Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985): 197-225).)

Roger Nicole spends a few paragraphs critiquing R. T. Kendall's 1979 book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford University Press, 1979, 2d ed. Paternoster, 1997).

Kendall's radical thesis

Let me preface this discussion by saying that I was personally devastated by Kendall's analysis. Not only is Kendall's book eye-opening, his analysis amounts to a stunning critique of the reformed doctrine of faith. Kendall shows that the trajectory of reformed theology has been significantly altered by the theologians that followed Calvin, particularly the theological heritage of Perkins and Ames. Though Kendall spends a sparse few pages on the doctrine of limited atonement, he shows convincingly that Calvin could not have held to limited atonement by virtue of the very nature of Calvin's doctrine of faith. Comparing modern reformed theology to Calvin, today's reformed theology has a completely different doctrine of faith. Though Kendall hits at limited atonement only indirectly, his blow is shattering.

If you think, dear reader, that I am exaggerating, I assure you that I am not. Kendall's thesis is radical: it lays the axe to the root of the tree.

Nicole's criticism of Kendall

Nicole's criticism of Kendall can be summarized in these two points:

  1. Either Kendall is right or the reformed theologians of four centuries of history, from Beza to B. B. Warfield, are right.
  2. Kendall has badly misread Calvin. Kendall selects his quotations, his evidence is ambiguous, and Kendall quotes Calvin out of context. The imagined connection in Calvin's theology between assurance and universal redemption is a figment of the imagination.

I will cover the first point in this article, then take up the second point in an article or two to follow. First, here is Nicole's broad criticism of Kendall:

1979 saw the appearance of R. T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. In this volume the author attempts to document that there is a great chasm between Calvin’s theology and that of his successor Beza, followed in turn by William Perkins and others and culminating in the Westminster Assembly, which unconsciously was veering in the direction of Arminianism rather than proceeding in the path delineated by Calvin. This extremely paradoxical thesis appears to rest primarily upon the observation that Calvin grounded the assurance of faith in the conviction “that Christ died indiscriminately for all men” and included this assurance in the very “essence of faith.” The same position is espoused in Kendall’s essay on “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology” in John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, a work otherwise in line with traditional Calvinism. Kendall’s position was very vigorously disputed in devastating reviews by A. N. S. Lane, W. Stanford Reid, and especially Paul Helm.

On the face of it Kendall’s view appears well-nigh incredible, for it implies that practically all the Calvinist successors of Calvin from Beza to Warfield and beyond, passing through the Synod of Dort delegates and the members of the Westininster Assembly, were basically wrong concerning the major direction of their theology. To call the Westminster Assembly doctrine of faith “crypto-Arminian” is preposterous. Kendall’s position impugns also practically all the Arminian theologians for failing to recognize that Calvin was their ally in the matter of the extent of the atonement, and the Calvinists with respect to the nature of faith! Frankly, it is easier to believe that Kendall is wrong rather than this whole galaxy of theologians!

Nicole, 203-204, citations omitted.

Calvin couldn't have taught unlimited atonement — could he?

The argument that nearly every reader of reformed literature makes to himself at one time or another when confronting the Calvin problem is this one: Calvin couldn't have taught unlimited atonement. He just couldn't have! Why, if he did, then the whole reformed community has been wrong about him! Surely Calvin believed TULIP!

That stubborn refusal to deal with Calvin's theology on its own terms because of the weight of contrary expert authority is one of the stock arguments against the idea that Calvin taught unlimited atonement. But it is a fallacy. Though all those men — from Beza to Warfield — may have misread Calvin, whether they did or didn't is irrelevant to the question of Calvin's meaning when he wrote, for example, the following:

Luke goes still farther in showing that the salvation brought by Christ is common to the whole human race, in as much as Christ; the author of salvation is descended from Adam, the common father of us all.

Institutes, 2.3.3. Kendall can read Calvin too, and he has made an analysis for our benefit. Kendall has criticized the theologians who followed Calvin. But that criticism cannot be wrong merely because it is a criticism. Nicole, in answering Kendall, has simply counted noses and concluded that because more theologians believe Calvin taught limited atonement, he must have done so. What authority can that have against an actual reading and analysis of Calvin and his reformed successors?

I submit that it has no authority.

One problem that is often encountered in scholarly literature is the genetic fallacy writ large. Expert A analyzes something and comes to some conclusion: let's call it conclusion Z. Expert B believes A and simply repeats his analysis uncritically. Expert C follows B and before you know it, a universe of experts —or even a galaxy of theologians — has supported conclusion Z.

But what if expert A was wrong? That is what Kendall has said. Now I am not saying that the galaxy of theologians has simply followed Beza, Perkins, or Ames or anybody in particular — the problem has not come up in that simple obvious manner. But if Kendall is right, it has arisen in something like that manner. That this is the case is shown by Nicole's argument itself. Nicole's criticism of Kendall is essentially just expert following expert. Kendall can't be right, says Nicole, because of the galaxy of theologians.

Kendall cannot be dismissed in this frivolous manner, merely because he has disagreed with the understanding of a significant historical movement. Fifty million Frenchmen can be wrong, and it is certainly not ipso facto wrong to criticize them. Further, Kendall's criticism is a strong one and ought to be taken up in a serious manner, not simply tossed aside.

Was the Westminster Assembly "crypto-Arminian?"

Yes, Kendall did say that the Westminster Assembly's doctrine of faith was crypto-Arminian. One must keep this criticism in perspective, though. Kendall was saying that the Assembly's doctrine of faith is crypto-Arminian, not their doctrine of depravity, free will, sovereignty of God, election, or predestination.

Further, Kendall has provided specific criticisms with reference to the thoughts of specific theologians. He has made thorough comparisons of those thoughts with Calvin's own. Nicole's dismissal of Kendall's argument as "preposterous" is a disservice to the intelligent reader.

As a brief summary of Kendall's thought on this point, I make the following observations.

First, Kendall criticizes the Assembly's doctrine of faith as voluntaristic. That is, reformed theology sees faith as an act of the will, where Calvin sees faith as knowledge. Calvin's viewpoint is obvious from Calvin's definition of faith in the Institutes:

We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

Not only is faith knowledge, but it is "firm and sure knowledge." Calvin did see assurance as essential to Christian faith.

And finally, this knowledge is received passively. Whereas an act of the will is, by its very nature, active, Calvin sees faith as passively received. Kendall quotes Calvin to this effect: faith is "something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God's favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack." Kendall, 19, quoting Institutes 3.13.5. (Compare Calvin's comment on John 6:29.)

Second, Kendall criticizes the Assembly's doctrine as implying that faith follows repentance. The reformed theologians after Beza emphasized, to a greater or lesser extent, the idea of repentance as preparation for faith. Calvin rejected this; he saw faith as producing repentance:

Now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith.... There are some, however, who suppose that repentance precedes faith, rather than flows from it, or is produced by it as fruit from a tree. Such persons have never known the power of repentance, and are moved to feel this way by an unduly slight argument.

Insititutes 3.3.1. Compare also this quote about preparation:

We are all sinners by nature, therefore we are held under the yoke of sin. But if the whole man is subject to the dominion of sin, surely the will, which is its principal seat, must be bound with the closest chains. And, indeed, if divine grace were preceded by any will of ours, Paul could not have said that “it is God which worketh in us both to will and to do” (Phi 2:13). Away, then, with all the absurd trifling which many have indulged in with regard to preparation.

Institutes 2.2.27. Repentance, which is an act of the will, is "bound with the closest chains," and requires God's work to produce it. Thus for Calvin, repentance cannot be a preparation for faith.

It is in these respects that Kendall criticizes the Westminster Assembly's doctrine of faith as crypto-Arminian. Nicole does not answer or even address Kendall's criticisms on these points — apart from his casual comments that the criticisms are "paradoxical," "well-nigh incredible," and "preposterous."

More on this subject next time.


castaway said...

Thank you ... thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece. Calvin was much broader in his sympathies than subsequent generations, which is always true of movements. The "founder" sees a vision of God, high and lifted up, but those follow reduce that vision to dogma, and then debate the dogma, until the vision is lost. I look forward to further installments.

Steve said...

Thanks castaway. I'll have another entry this week ... probably late in the week.

I messed up this post, typing "limited" for "unlimited" in a couple places. The error has been corrected; I hope no one has been confused.


Anonymous said...

Calvinists formed their theology of limited atonement first and then look for Scripture to prove it. Such is their explaining away of John 3:16, the "world" is explained according to limited view: the Christian world/the world of the elect. This is a major abuse of Scripture. Calvinism is logical but not biblical

L P Cruz said...

My superficial reading of Calvin's commentaries makes it hard for me to believe that he was a Calvinist.


Steve said...

LPC ... interesting comment. I would submit that most of today's "Calvinists" would agree with you. Today's Calvinism is not what Calvin would endorse, but that doesn't mean Calvin was wrong. :-)

Anonymous said...

"That stubborn refusal to deal with Calvin's theology on its own terms because of the weight of contrary expert authority is one of the stock arguments against the idea that Calvin taught (un)limited atonement. But it is a fallacy. Though all those men — from Beza to Warfield — may have misread Calvin, whether they did or didn't is irrelevant to the question of Calvin's meaning when he wrote...."

I caught a typo there. Anyway, I find your line of reasoning there interesting, because I am generally mocked when I assert that the whole of the "Reformed" tradition from Augustine on has misread the Bible. And if I assert that what Augustine said on this, or what Calvin said on that is "irrelevant" the "Reformed" people act as if the universe had just exploded. So for you to say that they, the very ones I am referring to, have misread Calvin and that their misreading is "irrelevant" because Calvin said what he said -- the same argument I would make concerning Scripture -- well I just find this greatly amusing.

Anonymous said...

(I would go back way further than Augustine in my allegation of a misreading of the Bible, but I was limiting my remarks to those that the 'Reformed' consider to be 'Reformed' and ironically Augustine the Manichean half-convert to the RCC is one of the men they would consider 'Reformed.')

L P Cruz said...


Actually I find Calvin more reasonable and wise than Calvinists. I do find his counsel wiser than those who claim his name.


Steve said...

Thanks egomakarios. I corrected the typo.

Martin T said...

Hi Steve,
Really appreciated this. I haven't read Kendall. Reading this made me realise I had been throwing the baby out with the bath water since I knew that there were a couple of valid criticisms of Kendall, e.g. as per Clifford, I hadn't bothered reading him but now I realise that I too have been guilty of a fallacy in dismissing all of what Kendall wrote and considering it not worth reading. (What fallacy is that?)

Since the present RCC is surely such a significantly different animal to the church that Augustine joined I think your reference to it is anachronistic and misleading. I can't help wondering whether you are deliberately trying to be provocative?


Steve said...

Thanks, Martin. I know I had only heard the criticism of Kendall. But having read Nicole, his criticism seemed provocative enough that I had to see for myself. Kendall has significantly influenced my thinking, and I wish more people treated this work with the respect it deserves. If we would read more irenically (is there such a word?) we might not miss the important message so often. I think we have missed Kendall's message. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Martin.

L P Cruz said...


I am looking forward to the other installment. But it seems to me at least in my own reading of some of Calvins comments on say limited atonement passages, that I doubt if Calvin believed in the LA as articulated in popular Calvinia.