The reformed view of "the sin of many."
That wording, "the sin of many" can be found in Isaiah 53:12:
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Often the defender of Calvinistic soteriology will point to this verse and others like it, and say, "See? Christ bore the sins of many, not of all." "Many is not all," they will say. The "many" for the reformed theologian is often equivalent to "the elect," or "his people," or other such constructions. The Puritan theologian John Flavel interpreted the "many" of Isaiah 53:12 as "the elect." I take the following quotation from his sermon on the covenant of redemption. Flavel says:
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 Flavel equates bearing the sins of many with bearing the sins of the elect. About what we'd expect.
For Calvin, many sometimes means all
But John Calvin does not do what Flavel and the rest of the reformed community has done. Quite to the contrary, Calvin here equates bearing the sins of many with bearing the sins of all. My friend David has used a portion of Calvin's comment on this verse for his signature line in his emails:
I approve of the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because on him was laid the guilt of the whole world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that "many" sometimes denotes "all."
The irony of this is piquant. Whereas most who call themselves Calvinists often read "all" as "many," Calvin, in this important verse, reads "many" as "all".
Odd hermeneutical rules and how to stop them
But there is a way out for the Calvinist. Those who are willing to impose odd hermeneutical rules in their quest to conform Calvin to their own image might say that in reading Calvin, the word "all" must never refer to all individual men; it must always refer to "all classes of men." "All" means "all men generally," by which they mean "all kinds" or "all sorts" — by which they mean some of all kinds or sorts — by which they mean not all. ( It is that easy to turn a positive statement into a negative one. It just requires the will to believe.)
It would certainly be an odd exegetical rule that universally changes "all" to "not all". But in this case — and this is the main point of this article — we have some assistance from the great man himself.
All means every one
Here is a little additional context for Calvin's quote, taken from his comment to Isaiah 53:12:
I have followed the ordinary interpretation, that "he bore the sin of many," though we might without impropriety consider the Hebrew word [Hebrew omitted - slc] (rabbim,) to denote "Great and Noble." And thus the contrast would be more complete, that Christ, while "he was ranked among transgressors," became surety for every one of the most excellent of the earth, and suffered in the room of those who hold the highest rank in the world. I leave this to the judgment of my readers. Yet I approve of the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because on him was laid the guilt of the whole world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that "many" sometimes denotes "all."
Consider what this means for our interpretation of Calvin. In Isaiah 53:12, Calvin says that "many" means "all." And even if the word "many" be translated "great and noble," Calvin says that Christ is surety for every one of them — every one of the great and noble. Thus we have — by a simple, straightforward reading — determined that all in Calvin's comment to Isaiah 53:12 does not mean all classes, or all sorts, or all kinds; it means all individuals.
This has strong implications for our hermeneutics, especially against those who would impose that odd rule referred to above. It also has implications for our reading of Calvin's comment to 1Timothy 2:4, where he admittedly refers the passage to princes and rulers. Princes and rulers, yes — every one of them.
May I say exclamation point again?